Manned aviation was just taking flight when States from across the world saw the importance of establishing a framework that would set the boundaries for civil international aviation regulation. So, State leaders from across the world gathered in Chicago, Illinois, for the Chicago Convention on International Aviation Law, (Chicago Convention).

The Chicago Convention establishes rules of airspace, aircraft registration, safety, security, and formalizes the principle that every State has complete and exclusive sovereignty in the airspace above its territory. It also formalized the desire to create an international civil aviation organization that could organize and support the international cooperation which the growing global air transport network would require.

The Chicago convention was held in 1944–just a few decades after the beginning of manned flight, the world was already using remotely controlled and uncontrolled (autonomous) aircraft. There was even a specific Article created to address the issue of one unmanned aircraft flying over the territory of another aircraft. Requiring aircraft flown without a pilot to receive special permission to fly over the territory of a Contracting State.

  1. Birth of ICAO and its Mission

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) held its first official Assembly in May of 1947 and it was given responsibility for regulating the many technical aspects of commercial air transportation. With the primary goal of creating uniformity in standards and “ensuring the safety of international civil aviation worldwide”. Creating international standards respecting categories, classes or types of aircraft or classes of airmen, certificates and licenses issued or rendered valid, under national regulations, by the Contracting State in which the aircraft is registered shall be recognized by other Contracting States for the purpose of flight over their territories, including landings and takeoffs.

The ICAO required member States to create their own domestic laws and regulations to comply with the Annexes of the Chicago convention. These new domestic laws and regulations would certify aircraft, airmen, and aircraft operators as competent to carry out safe operations in international aviation.

The World Headquarters of the International Civil Aviation Organization- ICAO – is located in Montreal, Canada.

  1. Applying ICAO Standards to Unmanned Aircraft

The ICAO fulfills its mission of creating homogeneity and safety through a myriad of very tight controls. The Chicago Convention’s Annexes have increased in number and evolved to now include more than 12,000 international standards and recommended practices (SARPs), all of which have been agreed to by ICAO’s now 193 Member States.

States are obliged to recognize the validity of the certificates of airworthiness and personnel licenses issued by the State in which the aircraft is registered, so long as the standards under which such certificates or licenses were rendered is at least as stringent as those established by ICAO.

For example, member States must provide type certification of a specific aircraft design. A type certificate will list specific features like the engines, the computer software, the materials that make up the aircraft and verify that they are functional and safe. Additionally, each significant change to the aircraft requires a whole new set of tests and an amended type certificate. 

The terms of the Chicago convention related to aircraft apply equally to remotely piloted aircraft engaged in international air navigation. Thus, like any other aircraft, RPA must comply with orders to land and other instructions issued by the overflown state pursuant to Article 3; operate in accordance with rules of the are in accordance with Article 12: have access to airports on a non-discriminatory basis under Article 15: their appropriate nationality and registration marks as required by Article 20: carry required documentation as per Article 29: and have a certificate of airworthiness issued or rendered valid by the state in which it is registered in accordance with Article 31.

Once an aircraft design has obtained its mandatory type certificate, each aircraft must then obtain an “airworthiness certificate” before it can fly into the airspace of another State. Each and every aircraft engaged in international navigation shall be provided with a certificate of airworthiness issued or rendered valid by the State in which it is registered. Certificates of airworthiness are for a specific plane. The airworthiness certificate must be kept onboard the aircraft and available for inspection by another contracting State.

Annex 2 of the Chicago convention was Amended in 2012 to include a standard requiring remote Pilots to be licensed in a manner consistent with Annex 1.  Though, as noted in the RPAS Manual, these certifications and licensing standards are not yet developed or adopted! This raises the awkward question of whether Contracting States are required to recognize certificates and licenses for remote pilots issued by the state of registry, pending the coming into force of the Annex 1 standards that are currently under development. 

Consequently, the mandate for the mutual recognition of certificates and licenses among contracting States in the absence of ICAO standards likewise does not extend to certificates and licenses for “remote pilots”. Therefore, adoption of a specific standard for mutual recognition, like the ones for “air operator certificates” in Annex 6, may be desirable to require contracting States to recognize certificates and licenses for remote Pilots issued or rendered valid by other contracting States.

The best way for ICAO to introduce RPA into international air and to avoid collisions between RPAS and aircraft, an international regulatory body is needed to provide uniform standards for national certification of RPAS and introduction into international airspace. However, ICAO is best equipped to treat manned aircraft and not remotely piloted aircraft.