All unmanned aircraft, whether remotely piloted, fully autonomous, or a combination thereof, are subject to the provisions of Article 8 titled Pilotless Aircraft of the Convention on International Civil Aviation.

Any aircraft intended to be flown without a pilot on board is referred to in the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Doc 7300), signed at Chicago on 7 December 1944 and amended by the ICAO Assembly as a “pilotless aircraft”.

Today we call these aircraft “unmanned” rather than “pilotless”. Unmanned aircraft (UA) includes a broad spectrum from meteorological balloons that fly freely to highly complex aircraft piloted from remote locations by licensed aviation professionals.

The latter part of the category is referred to as “remotely piloted aircraft” or RPA that operate as part of a system, a remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS).

Unmanned Aircraft (UA)

Any aircraft intended to be flown without a pilot on board is an unmanned aircraft. They can be remotely and fully controlled from another place (ground, another aircraft, space) or pre-programmed to conduct its flight without human intervention.

Unmanned Aircraft (UA) operate as part of an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS).

Type of UA

  1. RPA
  2. Autonomous Aircraft
  3. Model Aircraft

Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS)

An aircraft and its associated elements are operated with no pilot on board. Unmanned Aircraft (UA) operate as part of an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) which also includes a remote pilot station (RPS), a C2 Link for control and management, and other necessary components.

The term UAS encompasses all aircraft flown without a pilot on board that operates as part of a larger system.

UAS includes:

  • Remote pilot station or ground control station (may be handheld)
  • Remote pilot
  • Command and control (C2) link used to pilot UA
  • UA

Category of UAS

  1. RPAS – piloted from a remote pilot station.
  2. Autonomous Aircraft – without intervention of a human pilot.
  3. Model Aircraft – for recreational use.

Regulatory Framework

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) recognizes many categories of aircraft. Aircraft can be land, sea, or amphibious. Whether the aircraft is manned or unmanned does not affect its status as an aircraft.

Each category of aircraft will potentially have unmanned versions in the future. This point is central to all further issues pertaining to Unmanned Aviation and provides the basis for addressing airworthiness, personnel licensing, separation standards, etc.

The principal objective of the aviation regulatory framework is to achieve and maintain the highest possible uniform level of safety. In the case of the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), this means ensuring the safety of any other airspace user as well as the safety of persons and property on the ground.

UAS will operate in accordance with ICAO standards that exist for manned aircraft as well as any special and specific standards that address the operational, legal, and safety differences between manned and unmanned aircraft operations.

Pilot Responsibility

In order for UAS to integrate into non-segregated airspace and at non-segregated aerodromes, there shall be a pilot responsible for the UAS operation. Pilots may utilize equipment such as an autopilot to assist in the performance of their duties; however, under no circumstances will the pilot responsibility be replaced by technologies in the foreseeable future.

To better reflect the status of these aircraft as being piloted, the term “remotely-piloted aircraft” (RPA) is being introduced into the lexicon. An RPA is an aircraft piloted by a licensed “remote pilot” situated at a “remote pilot station” located external to the aircraft (i.e. ground, ship, another aircraft, space) who monitors the aircraft at all times and can respond to instructions issued by ATC, communicates via voice or data link as appropriate to the airspace or operation, and has direct responsibility for the safe conduct of the aircraft throughout its flight. An RPA may possess various types of auto-pilot technology but at any time the remote pilot can intervene in the management of the flight. This equates to the ability of the pilot of a manned aircraft being flown by its auto flight system to take prompt control of the aircraft.

RPA is a subset of Unmanned Aircraft (UA).

Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA)

RPA is an unmanned aircraft, which is piloted from a remote pilot station. RPA is a subset of UA. A further subset of RPA is expected to be accommodated and ultimately integrated into the airspace for international, instrument flight rules (IFR) operations, which will require full regulatory certification.

Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS)

RPAS is a subset of UAS. The remotely-piloted aircraft system (RPAS) comprises a set of configurable elements including an RPA, its associated remote pilot station(s), the required C2 links, and any other system elements as may be required, at any point during flight operation. Other features might include, inter alia, software, health monitoring, ATC communications equipment, a flight termination system, and launch and recovery elements. The system, in many cases, will not be static. An aircraft can be piloted from one of many remote pilot stations, during any given flight or from one day to another. Likewise, multiple aircraft can be piloted from a single remote pilot station, although standards may dictate a one-aircraft-at-a-time scenario. In both of these cases, the configuration of the system in operational use changes as one element or the other changes on a real-time basis.

RPAS includes:

  • Remote pilot station
  • Remote pilot
  • C2 link used to pilot RPA
  • Any other elements required by type design

Remote pilot stations will require regulatory oversight as do other safety-critical elements of the aviation system. Details of how this will be achieved by the appropriate State authority are to be determined.

Unmanned Aircraft Operations

Unmanned aircraft can be accommodated in airspace with appropriate consideration given to the risk they pose to other aircraft, people, and property on the ground.

The term “DRONE” is commonly used to refer to these aircraft. ICAO encourages states to use the technically correct terms of Unmanned Aircraft (UA) or Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), as applicable, when developing their regulations, guidance materials, and outreach products, in order to avoid confusion and misunderstanding.

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