What are Unmanned Aircraft?

Traditional Aircraft Defined- 

Interestingly, the Chicago Convention, which is considered to be the magna carta of civil aircraft, never actually defines the word “aircraft”. In 1967, in response to advancements in technology, ICAO re-defined “aircraft” as “any machine that can drive support in the atmosphere from the reactions of the are other than the reactions of the are against the Earth’s surface,” This change in the definition of “aircraft” came primarily as a response to the invention of “hovercraft”. A hovercraft is a machine that elevates itself off of the ground by pushing in downward to lift the vehicle off of the ground. Because a hovercraft creates lift by pushing air onto the ground it is not capable of “flying” more than a few inches in the air. 

The need for ICAO to redefine one of its most fundamental words, “aircraft” due to development of previously unforeseen technology, the hovercraft, is a perfect example of how quickly technology can change and how it can make prior norms outdated.

Unmanned Aircraft are Aircraft-

Determining what is, and is not, an “aircraft” is so important because it determines whether it falls under the purview of ICAO. If it does, then it is held to the same standard as traditional manned aircraft and must comply with all of the same requirements. 

Upon initial review, defining “unmanned aircraft” seems to be intuitive and somewhat self-explanatory. However, with close examination and careful thought what is and is not “unmanned” becomes less clear. For example, what if there is not a pilot in the aircraft but the aircraft is being flown by a person standing on the ground, using a remote control? Or must an “unmanned” aircraft be one that is flown completely autonomously without any human input? 

The plain wording of Article 8 makes clear that the drafters intended “pilotless aircraft” to include aircraft that were remotely controlled, e.g., from the ground (via radio signals); thus, “pilotless aircraft” in the sense that Article 8 refers to an aircraft flown without a “pilot” of Article 32, which provides, “the pilot of every aircraft and the other members of the operating crew of every aircraft engaged in international navigation shall be provided with certificates of competency and licenses issued or rendered valid by the state in which the aircraft is registered”.

Defining “pilotless” is of great importance because, “no aircraft capable of being flown without a pilot shall be flown without a pilot over the territory of a Contracting State without special authorization by that state and in accordance with the terms of such authorization. Each contracting State undertakes to ensure that the flight of such aircraft without a pilot shall be so controlled as to obviate danger to the Civil aircraft.” 

The term “without a pilot” was later clarified to mean that an “aircraft which is intended to be operated with no pilot on board shall be further classified as unmanned,” Furthermore, “unmanned aircraft shall include remotely-piloted aircraft.” 

An aircraft is not required to be fully autonomous in order to be unmanned. An aircraft that is controlled by a person is still “unmanned”, so long as the person controlling the aircraft is not located within the aircraft. For example, a quad-copter- drone that is controlled remotely by a person on the ground is still an unmanned aircraft. RPA as “an unmanned aircraft which is piloted from a remote pilot station”.

All unmanned aircraft, whether remotely piloted, fully autonomous or combinations thereof, are subject to the provisions of Article 8 and inter alia the ICAO. Annex 7 makes it clear that remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), are simply one type of unmanned aircraft, and all unmanned pilotless aircraft, whether remotely-piloted, fully autonomous, or combinations thereof, are subject to the provisions of Article 8 of the Chicago convention. Because RPAS are aircraft, ICAO is responsible for their international air travel. They are held to the ICAO standards.

If you stay up at night and pontificate about the differences between manned and unmanned aircraft then the UAS Law Center may be able to help you stay compliant with all the FAA regulations. If we can be of service call us at 623-252-6884 or message us HERE.