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Safety is the FAA's top mission, and the agency maintains the world's safest aviation system. The FAA first authorized use of unmanned aircraft in the National Airspace System (NAS) in 1990.
Today, unmanned aircraft are flying in the NAS under very controlled conditions, performing border and port surveillance by the Department of Homeland Security, helping with scientific research and environmental monitoring by NASA and NOAA, supporting public safety by law enforcement agencies, helping state universities conduct research, and supporting various other missions for public (government) entities. Operations range from ground level to above 50,000 feet, depending on the specific type of aircraft. However, UAS operations are currently not authorized in Class B airspace (PDF), which exists over major urban areas and contains the highest density of manned aircraft in the National Airspace System.
What are the different types of UAS operations?
There are three types of unmanned aircraft system operations: Civil, Public and Model Aircraft.
Obtaining a Special Airworthiness Certificate in the experimental category for a particular UAS is currently the only way civil operators of unmanned aircraft are accessing the NAS. Experimental certificate regulations preclude carrying people or property for compensation or hire, but do allow operations for research and development, flight and sales demonstrations and crew training. The FAA is working with civilian operators to collect technical and operational data that will help refine the UAS airworthiness certification process. The agency is currently developing a future path for safe integration of civil UAS into the NAS as part of NextGen implementation. Read more about Civil Operations.
The FAA has been working for several months to implement the provisions of Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, "Special Rules for Certain Unmanned Aircraft Systems," which will allow for commercial operations in low-risk, controlled environments. Read more about Section 333.
COAs are available to public entities that want to fly a UAS in civil airspace. Common uses today include law enforcement, firefighting, border patrol, disaster relief, search and rescue, military training, and other government operational missions. Applicants make their request through an online process and the FAA evaluates the proposed operation to see if it can be conducted safely. Read more about Public Operations.
Recreational use of airspace by model aircraft is covered by FAA Advisory Circular 91-57 (PDF), which generally limits operations for hobby and recreation to below 400 feet, away from airports and air traffic, and within sight of the operator. In June 2014, the FAA published a Federal Register notice (PDF) on its interpretation of the statutory special rules for model aircraft in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. The law is clear that the FAA may take enforcement action against model aircraft operators who operate their aircraft in a manner that endangers the safety of the national airspace system. In the notice, the FAA explains that this enforcement authority is designed to protect users of the airspace as well as people and property on the ground. Read the full press release. Read more about Model Aircraft Operations.
What can I do with my model aircraft?
Having fun means flying safely! Hobby or recreational flying doesn't require FAA approval but you must follow safety guidelines. Any other use requires FAA authorization. Here is a list of Do's and Don'ts for flying model aircraft.
The agency wants the public to know how and when to contact the FAA regarding safety concerns with UAS operations. You can visit the Agency's Aviation Safety Hotline website or call 1-866-835-5322, Option 4.