Flight Standards for UAS in the National Air Space


Posted: February 26, 2020 | By: Shawn Nelson


Proliferation of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for military operations has proportionally increased the number of pilots trained to operate these systems. While there are UAS hands-on testing standards in the military, the thoroughness in manned proficiency checks is not reflected in UAS standards and is nonexistent in Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations.

Any certified, manned pilot will say that a hands-on practical test, more commonly referred to as a “checkride,” can make even a competent and proficient pilot anxious, nervous, and tense. Evaluating against a set of standards will make a seasoned pilot feel the same stressors felt by a new pilot. If the pilot fails to correctly complete a task to standard, he or she cannot remain certified until retrained and reevaluated. Flight standards for manned systems have produced certified pilots with dependable, demonstrated piloting capabilities. This has been the way of aviation for almost a hundred years, that is, until UAS emerged.

UAS flight control methods vary as much as airframes. Examples like the MQ-1 Predator, which allows the use of a hybrid of manual stick-and-rudder and autonomous flight control, and the larger RQ-4 Global Hawk, which is entirely autonomous (to follow the operator’s preset programming), are just two of the many possible forms of control used today.

While the focus of this article is on manual flight control and standards, the need for programming and mission analysis standards may be even more crucial in the military, where automation is constantly enhanced and preferred by commanders. The predictability of mission programming and the decreased reliance on physical skill make this an attractive option.

Experience has shown that repeated synthetic aperture radar runs flown manually are inferior to programmed runs, which ensure that airspeed, altitude, heading, and start and end points are duplicated every time for consistent imagery comparisons. The increase of this automation allows easier standards for flight personnel (thus, a higher percentage of operators are likely to successfully complete training) and a reduction in flight control human error incidents. These are both highly desirable outcomes of autonomous flight; however, they cause complacency, which will be discussed later in this article.

Since 2016, the FAA has allowed the public to fly small UAS (sUAS) (under 55 lb) in the National Airspace without a lengthy Certificate of Authorization process. Currently, UAS can be flown for research and development (R&D) or recreational purposes, with virtually no pilot testing required by the FAA. The Army has standards for their small UAS, such as the RQ-11 Raven, a 4-lb, fixed wing drone. Yet even these requirements pale in comparison to those of both FAA and military manned aviation. Think a 4-lb flying camera cannot do any harm? The following examples highlight the contrary, as accidents happen. Therefore, flight standards need to be set.

  • July 21, 2016: Doug and wife Rochelle from Utah were struck by a “drone” while posing for wedding photos. Video from the incident shows the quadcopter, weighing ~3 lb, striking Doug in the head. As the drone tumbles to the ground, you can see that Doug was also knocked down but not seriously injured [1].
  • 2017: A commercial airplane was hit by a drone while approaching Quebec City, Canada [2].
  • January 2019: New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport experienced flight disruptions after a drone was sighted at 3,500 ft (FAA regulation is 400 ft above-ground level [AGL] max) near Teterboro Airport [3].
  • September 6, 2013: Roman Pirozek, Jr., of Queens, NY, was killed when his remote-controlled (RC) helicopter struck him, the rotors slashing his head and neck. Roman was attempting an aerobatic maneuver with the RC helicopter when he was struck and later died of his injuries [4].


UAS regulation is in its infancy. Currently, a Part 107 sUAS Remote Pilot Certificate is obtained by taking a written test only, without hands-on testing. The military has a comparable written testing program with limited or no flight tasks for their sUAS. The Part 107 certificate demonstrates that the regulations, operating requirements, and procedures for safely flying drones [5] are understood. But all risk-management evaluations for UAS operations, especially in a military context, should consider standardizing a hands-on practical testing method because memorizing a written test by rote memory does not equate to verified flight proficiency.

For example, ask anyone who does not have a driver’s license how to drive a car, and they can tell you about gas, steering, brake, clutch, turn signals, stop lights, speed limits, etc. This is the understanding phase of learning, with the individual parts understood. But blending them together is not as clear, nor is the physical requirement of coordination.

Now have them drive the car for the first time. As action, sequence, and timing become required, individuals realize that the process is much more than rules and theory as the car stalls for the 10th time or they blow through another stop sign. A lack of comprehension and correlation makes these new drivers dangerous to themselves and others until experience is gained. If we demand this of drivers, why not military UAS operators?

The intent of standardization is not to make our UAS operators “walk uphill in the snow” like their manned parents did; it is to produce and maintain a proficient operator that can support the commander’s mission with confidence. There are perceived and actual differences in standards required for UAS licensing. If we are to have manned and unmanned aircraft share the same sky, then consistent and reasonable standards should apply to both.

Without formalized training on the operating system, a UAS operator will not have as complete a skill set to avoid accidents as those with training. This training enhances aeronautical decision making (ADM), the systematic approach to mental processing used by aviation personnel to consistently determine the best course of action for a given set of circumstances [6].

Good ADM allows the operator to fly safely while completing the mission. Knowing the limits of the system (i.e., line-of-sight uplink and downlink connection, battery duration, fuel burn, etc.) allows precise flight planning that reduces the chances of exceeding a limit and possibly losing the aircraft. Lost link planning is often the last thing inexperienced operators think about. Flight planning that includes lost link contingencies is critical in preventing the aircraft from returning to home base along a path that may have obstacles. If system limitations preclude preplanned lost link routes, then planning the entire flight to ensure zero obstacle interference between the home station and aircraft is a must.

When discussing actual flight controls, there are generally two types of interfaces—manual control and preprogrammed control. Preprogrammed control is plotting a route and altitude and sending it on its way to fly a route autonomously. Should standards apply to this type of control? Absolutely! While the software does the actual flying, the operator must still know the software and its capabilities and limitations. If the operator selects a wrong setting (selecting mean sea level instead of AGL, kilos instead of pounds, or mph instead of knots), the aircraft may end up flying somewhere unplanned. Unplanned flight means uncontrolled flight, a risk the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and FAA should work to mitigate. Currently, the FAA only requires reporting of uncontrolled flight, even in restricted airspace, and nothing else.

Current technologies allow UAS to fly entire missions autonomously, without input from the operator. More expensive systems provide collision avoidance from stationary objects and auto return to the home station in case of unprogrammed deviations encountered during flight. If overreliance of systems and a lack of understanding autonomous logic are not mitigated, complacency is almost ensured as a by-product with this level of autonomy. Complacency has no place in military missions.

It is not enough to simply plot a line between two points and hope for the best. Route reconnaissance identifies hazards not seen from the launch location (i.e., trees, power lines, buildings, terrain, etc.). A well trained operator knows that route reconnaissance is a must. The question is, if it is not a standard, who is responsible when the UAS becomes a lost link and flies into the side of a hill on its way back to the home station?

Comprehensive standards, which identify appropriate actions to minimize flight logic programming errors and increase system knowledge, are effective in assisting the operator with safe flight practices and mission accomplishment.

How can hands-on training be standardized to help military operators increase their operational experience? As stated, the software and hardware of UAS systems vary greatly from platform to platform. This wide array of differing interfaces makes it almost impossible to establish standardized flight control evaluation from a hand controller perspective. Each system requires a unique method of control and evaluation. End-state maneuvers should be trained and evaluated and focus on completing the maneuver to a standard equal across all platforms. This approach will also work for preprogramming.


Developing a proficiency standard should include the task, conditions, and standards to accomplish the task. These are defined as follows:

  • Task – The task is the desired end state; it is the point of the maneuver.
  • Conditions – Conditions set the stage for accomplishing the task to include varying ways to evaluate the task, prerequisites, and equipment needed.
  • Standard – The standard is a detailed description of the criterion required to accomplish the task.

There is often more than one way to accomplish the desired end state. While not every possible method can be covered, the detailed standards should provide someone new to the task a clear idea of how to successfully complete the task. Two example standards follow (Figures 1 and 2).

This results in the aircraft being flown a full 360 degrees. In flying four different directions relative to the operator, visual perspective is changed. Correlation between what is seen, and aircraft input, can be confusing at first. While left and right always remain the same  for the aircraft itself, as the aircraft returns toward the operator, visually, left and right have now swapped. An inexperienced operator will struggle with correct inputs, lacking practice and muscle memory for flying error free from a reverse perspective.

NOTE: Turning your body in the same direction the aircraft is flying will reduce reverse perspective confusion. While this can alleviate reverse perspective confusion, it requires the operator to stand.

A modified and easier version of this is to maintain one heading throughout the box, making no turns at the points.

Once learned, multiple pirouettes can be made along a given line, reversing direction after each 360. The control touch required to execute this maneuver requires constant adjustment as opposed to intermittent course correction normally required to fly a straight line. Being able to make constant control input while still maintaining situation awareness will facilitate better control in less-than-optimal conditions like high or gusty winds.

Are these maneuvers necessary in completing normal flight for military missions? Not likely. Will they enhance the physical motor skills of the operator? Most definitely. When practiced and completed to the given standard, military operators learn competence and confidence in the system and their own abilities. Through muscle memory learned by repetition, cognitive processing is reduced when maneuvers become second nature. This allows faster recognition of emergencies and less time in initiating a response. Trying to remember which way the stick needs to be deflected for a left bank when the UAS is facing 90 degrees to the right is not acceptable during a time-critical maneuver.


Through improving knowledge and hands-on skills, ADM will also improve. While better if taught, ADM is also learned through experience and is essential for safe flight. The operator, aircraft, environment, and mission are parts of any situation. When there is an event change that affects the situation, two responses are immediate—skills and headwork. Not only does practiced control touch allow positive skills response, but it can also reduce stress and facilitate better attitude management. Inadequate skills or headwork results in mishaps [6].

For example, an operator, having practiced the in-line pirouette maneuver to proficiency, is asked to fly a mission on a windy day. Looking at the weather report, the operator can determine that the reported winds and gusts do not exceed his or her abilities for the first 2 hours. Based on experience, the operator is confident that the level of control input (constant correction) required to complete the mission is similar to the in-line pirouette maneuver. After that, the winds will become stronger and exceed the proficiency level to safely control the aircraft. The operator decides to land 30 min prior to the increased winds to ensure no mishaps occur.

Without having flown the maneuver, the operator might have no idea of the workload involved in constant correction flight or the level of skill needed to attempt such a flight. But having flown to the standard and being proficient at it, the operator can better recognize his or her limits and abilities and those of the aircraft, environment, and mission. This results in safe decisions and allows job completion and ensured aircraft safety.

The example also highlighted the pre-mission risk assessment. The military operator can prevent accidents before they happen by using a 5-step risk analysis process: (1) identify the risk, (2) analyze the risk, (3) evaluate the risk,(4) implement controls, and (5) monitor the risk. This risk mitigation process is taught to all personnel in the military and is integrated into everything done. No vehicle, ship, aircraft, satellite, or piece of equipment in the military is moved without a risk assessment that has been reviewed by the proper risk authority who will go/no go the mission based on an acceptable level of risk.

In order to maximize this process, a sound knowledge base is imperative, including, but not limited to, system knowledge, system experience level, weather, Notice to Airmen, Air Traffic Control coordination, mechanical status, and human condition. By identifying weak or dangerous mission components, control measures can be developed and implemented. Landing 30 min prior to worsening weather is an example of a control implemented prior to mission start to help minimize the potential for a mishap.


Military flight standards must be tougher, more rigid, and more focused than those of the FAA due to the increased level of risk that military personnel are exposed to as compared to the average civilian pilot. Because standards ensure flight safety and protect human life, UAS standards must improve to include, at a minimum, testing to demonstrate UAS flight proficiency. Too often, corrective action for known safety issues is delayed until after loss of life or media embarrassment. Military UAS flight standards must be proactively strengthened to produce certified pilots who have demonstrated abilities to successfully operate and thus yield more controlled and higher quality military UAS operations. The responsibility for proficiency must not be solely an individual duty.

Until the DoD or FAA mandates required maneuvers for evaluation, business opportunities exist for corporate and private businesses to develop training programs targeted at differing control interfaces. Industries performing R&D on UAS can quickly and easily test their systems. However, this ease comes with the risk that an unskilled operator can still cause damage or even injury or death by operating without standardized piloting requirements. Paramount in training programs is maintaining the focus on operator improvement and flight safety.

Each chosen standard maneuver should be tailored to the individual UAS being flown and experience levels of the operators. For example, motorcycle riders have riding courses ranging from the rider who has never sat on a bike before, to off-road riding, to track racing. No less thought and effort should be made for remotely-piloted or automated UAS’s.

Unmanned aviation is here to stay and will continue to be a critical technology for the DoD. As its versatility continues to expand, so will the R&D and associated testing. Establishing standards is not designed to make life harder but assist in accomplishing the mission successfully and safely.

  1. Metro News. “When Wedding Shoots Go Wrong, Hor-ribly Wrong: Groom Hit in Face by Quadcopter-Camera.” https://metro.co.uk/2013/08/20/when-wedding-shoots-go-wrong-horribly-wrong-groom-hit-in-face-by-quadcopter-camera-3930808/, 20 August 2013.
  2. McFarland, M. “Airports Scramble to Handle Drone Incidents.” https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/05/tech/airports-drones/index.html, 5 March 2019.
  3. Simko-Bednarski, E. “Reports of Drone Disrupt Flights at Newark Airport.” https://www.cnn.com/2019/01/22/us/newark-drone-sightings/index.html, 22 January 2019.
  4. Tracy, T., E. Sandoval, and B. Hutchinson. “Queens Man, 19, Killed by Model Helicopter Shared Passion for Remote-Controlled Fliers With Father.” https://wwwnydailynews.com/new-york/queens/teen-killed-remote-controlled-helicopter-slices-throat-article-1.1447068, 6 September 2013.
  5. FAA. “Become a Drone Pilot.” https://www.faa.gov/uas/commercial_operators/become_a_drone_pilot/, 20 August 2019.
  6. FAA. “Advisory Circular 60-22 Aeronautical Decision Making.” U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Avia-tion Administration, Washington, DC, 1991.



SHAWN NELSON works at SURVICE Engineering as an aviation subject matter expert developing enhanced and interactive technical manuals for U.S. Army Special Opera-tions. He is a retired Army UH-60 Blackhawk instructor pilot with a commercial, instrument, multiengine, turbine rotary wing certificate and 30+ years in aviation. He authored the Army’s MQ-1 Warrior-A UAS Aircrew Train-ing Manual and MQ-1 Launch and Recovery Course and developed academic and flight instruction for New Equipment Training Program of Instruction of the MQ-1C Gray Eagle and Gray Eagle Extended Range UAS aircraft fielding. Mr. Nelson holds a B.S. in aviation science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.



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