LAS VEGAS — The FAA is working to create two permanent areas of Arctic airspace for research and commercial flights by unmanned aircraft, as directed by Congress in February in the agency’s reauthorization bill.

“We have to create a type of airspace that does not fit any existing mold,” says Jim Williams, head of the FAA’s new unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) integration office.

Creating the two small Arctic UAS operational areas, one northern and one southern as directed by Congress, will require the FAA to coordinate with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as they will be in international airspace.

“The airspace in the law is all in international waters, where ICAO has jurisdiction,” Williams says. “We will have to go back to ICAO to resolve how to implement the airspace.”

But the benefits of flying unmanned aircraft over the Arctic will be “pretty enormous,” he says. Oil companies are building floating exploratory wells “that do not withstand icebergs, so they need to monitor the ocean around them, for which a UAS is perfect.”

Guarding the coast, fish spotting, tracking the movements of ocean mammals and monitoring seaways to see when they are open are among other roles seen for Arctic UAS.

To implement the congressional directive, the FAA has to create a new airspace type, over water and up to at least 2,000 ft. altitude; identify two permanent operating areas; and designate onshore and offshore launch locations and transit corridors for ingress and egress.

Williams says the FAA is looking at using existing restricted-category certification to air-vehicle approval and adapting Part 135 rules to allow commercial UAV operations in the Arctic areas. “We will approach ICAO, the Arctic coordinating authority, to get approval for the areas,” he says. The plan is to be completed by August 2013.

ICAO, meanwhile, says its first package of standards for what it calls remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) will become applicable on Nov. 15. They are “the tip of a complete regulatory framework,” says Leslie Cary, secretary of ICAO’s UAS study group.

The objective of the regulations will be to enable a remote operator located in, and licensed by, one country to fly a UAS in airspace controlled by another country. “That’s impossible in manned aviation ... and requires harmonized global standards,” she says.

“By 2028 we hope all the regulations to support the operation of RPAS in all classes of airspace and aerodromes will be in place,” Cary says. ICAO defines RPAS as a subset of unmanned aircraft in which the vehicle is always under the control of a remote pilot.