The world will not change on Sept. 30, 2015, the deadline set by Congress for the FAA to ensure safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS). But it should be a world in which operators of civil UAS—public entities and commercial enterprises—will find it easier to gain access to the skies.

Easier, but not yet routine, according to the FAA's first roadmap for the integration of UAS into the NAS, which was released last month. Publication of the roadmap, and a supporting UAS comprehensive plan from the Transportation Department, are milestones along the route to UAS integration laid out by Congress in FAA reauthorization legislation enacted in February 2012.

But while the congressional language calls for the safe integration of civil UAS into the NAS “not later than Sept. 30, 2015,” the FAA is interpreting this as having a framework in place but not all the airworthiness rules and operating regulations required to allow all categories of unmanned aircraft to fly in all classes of airspace.

By the end of September 2015, according to the roadmap, the FAA expects to have the final rule in place for the certification and operation of small unmanned aircraft systems (SUAS) weighing less than 55 lb.; to have six test sites operational across the U.S. conducting research to validate the performance and interoperability requirements for various UAS classes; and to have the initial performance specifications in hand for the sense-and-avoid and command-and-control systems required for full integration.

By the congressional deadline, public agencies such as law enforcement will already be operating small UAS under streamlined case-by-case approvals, and the Defense Department can expect to be able to fly its unmanned aircraft from bases inside unrestricted airspace to military flying areas using FAA-approved ground-based sense-and-avoid systems. Routine commercial UAS operations in the sterile airspace above the Arctic Circle are also expected by the deadline.

But many activities considered key to enabling safe and routine “file-and-fly” airspace access will still lie in the future, including defining the certification requirements for airborne sense-and-avoid systems and beyond line-of-sight (BLOS) command-and-control (C2) links. The completion of pathfinder projects to obtain standard airworthiness certification for one or more civil UAS, to enable unrestricted airspace access, also will still lie in the future after the deadline.

But industry has welcomed publication of the initial five-year roadmap as evidence the FAA is moving toward integrating UAS into the NAS. “The FAA is making significant progress toward meeting the congressional mandate of UAS domestic integration by 2015,” says Marion Blakey, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association.

The roadmap “looks like a great start,” says Ted Wierzbanowski, director of UAS airspace integration for manufacturer AeroVironment, and chairman of the group within standards developer ASTM International that is devising industry-consensus technical standards for the operation of small UAS. These standards, which manufacturers will use in place of FAA certification specifications to demonstrate airworthiness, are expected to be released concurrently with the long-delayed SUAS notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM), which the FAA says is now expected early in 2014.

It could take two years to go from a proposed to a final rule, depending on the extent and content of public comments on the NPRM, but getting the SUAS rule on the books is crucial for the FAA. This accomplishment will show the agency is making progress and help satisfy the large near-term demand forecast by the FAA for civil UAS under 55 lb.—for law enforcement and agriculture. “We can expect 7,500 small unmanned aircraft in our national airspace within the next five years, provided the regulations are in place to handle them,” says FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.

A final rule would accelerate UAS integration into the NAS, reduce the number of case-by-case certificates of authorization the FAA has to issue and free up agency resources to tackle the next phases. Another key enabler of faster progress will be selection of the six test sites, which has been held up as the FAA wrestles with the unexpectedly controversial issue of public privacy and the need for regulation. The agency has now issued its final privacy policy for UAS operations at the test sites and says it still plans to announce the six locations by year-end.

Civil liberties organizations have welcomed the final policy, but questioned whether it goes far enough to restrict what regulators can do with the data they collect during UAS flights. The policy requires test-site operators to comply with federal, state and local laws to protect the privacy of individuals and to have a plan for data use and retention that is publicly available and reviewed annually.

“Requiring public disclosures of data use and retention policies, as well as mandating audits, are needed and welcome safeguards,” says Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union. But it is crucial those procedural protections “are followed by concrete restrictions on how data from drones can be used and how long it can be stored,” he argues.

Calabrese says Congress must also weigh in on areas outside of the FAA's authority, such as use of UAS by law enforcement and the Homeland Security Department. “Requiring operators to think about how to approach privacy, to write it down and submit it to scrutiny, I think will be very helpful,” says Jonathan Hart, an attorney with Dow Lohnes. “It is a practical way to develop safeguards over time, which is part of what this process is about—to figure things out and not to legislate,” he says, adding, “it is awfully early in the evolution of this business to be dictating privacy policy. These are test sites also for privacy policy.”

Congressional language requires the selected sites to be up and running within 180 days and finish operating in February 2017. They will play a key role is helping the FAA and industry develop the rules and regulations for operating civil UAS. Among their tasks are expected to be verification and validation of the initial minimum operational performance standards (MOPS) being developed by standards body RTCA for the critical detect-and-avoid (DAA) and C2 subsystems. RTCA's Special Committee 228, which was formed to develop the DAA and C2 standards, has scheduled its first meeting for Dec. 5.

According to the FAA roadmap, RTCA is to deliver preliminary MOPS for Phase 1 DAA subsystems—for UAS operating in Class A airspace under instrument flight rules—by the third quarter of 2015. The group also is expected to deliver the MOPS for Phase 1 C2—line-of-sight using terrestrial C- and L-band data links—in the same timeframe, just meeting the congressional deadline. But it will be the third quarter of 2016 before the final Phase 1 DAA and C2 MOPS are released and the FAA can follow up in 2017 with the regulations and guidance for manufacturers to produce the systems and operators to use them.

RTCA, meanwhile, will move on to define the MOPS for Phase 2 DAA (other classes of airspace) and C2 BLOS, using multiple satellite-communications bands. The FAA is counting on securing satcom frequencies for the BLOS data links at the International Telecommunications Union's World Radio Conference in November 2015.

The roadmap also lays out the FAA's plans to move from limited, restricted-category airworthiness certification of UAS already operated by the Defense Department to full, standard certification of a new design by 2017.

The first restricted-category approvals were granted in August to AeroVironment's hand-launched Puma AE and Insitu's long-endurance ScanEagle. The approvals allow the first commercial UAS operations, but are limited to flights in Arctic airspace.

Energy company ConocoPhillips conducted the first Arctic test flight in late September, a ScanEagle launching off the research vessel Westward Wind to fly over the Chukchi Sea off Alaska. A second flight ended when the ScanEagle ditched after its engine failed, demonstrating why the FAA is taking a carefully phased approach to introducing UAS into civil airspace.