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Recent US government-sponsored research provides operators of small UAS helpful guidance for legally operating in proximity to manned aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) first comprehensive set of regulations permitting commercial small unmanned aircraft operations took effect within the past year. New government research helps clarify aircraft separation, or what an operator must do when sharing the sky with other manned aircraft.

The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Executive Committee (EXCOM) Science and Research Panel (SARP) recently presented research that provides a helpful working standard of what constitutes safe separation between UAS and manned aircrafts. The working standard defines safe operation of an UAS as requiring minimum separation distances. The FAA has the authority to charge aircraft operators for alleged “careless or reckless operation”.

As reported on, violations can subject operators to suspensions of their pilot certificates and civil fines. Developing operating procedures adopting these separation recommendations will help operators avoid and defend against charges. Moreover, developing flight operations obviously intended to promote regulatory compliance and safe operations will prove to be helpful in any future disputes with insurance carriers.

Operators may also be excited to learn that the SARP working standard may allow for freer operation of commercial sUAS than some observers may have thought. By way of comparison, for large UAS (> 25 kilograms.), SARP recommended a 1,200 meter horizontal and 130 meter vertical separation standard with a 210 meter advisory alert. Moreover, the working standard is also an important step toward the design and testing of “sense and avoid” systems that will be required for beyond-line-of-sight operations, once approved by the FAA.

Given the risks and penalties associated with a UAS collision, commercial UAS operators should take care to develop standard policies that comply with the latest regulations and standards. Additionally, as regulators race to keep pace with developing UAS technology, interested stakeholders should evaluate how new rules and proposed standards may affect their business and pay attention for future developments.