Few domestic issues have evoked such excitement — and controversy — in recent years as a 2012 congressional mandate to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to expand civil use of unmanned aerial systems in the National Airspace System (NAS).

On the one hand, the potential business and job creation prospects are substantial. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) recently released a report that predicted an $81-billion U.S. market for UAS would emerge within 10 years after the FAA had established guidelines for domestic UAS operations. (See the news article in this issue.)

On the other hand, the UAS mandate has fueled widespread concerns about related safety and privacy issues. A technology mostly associated with Department of Defense (DoD) and CIA operations against enemy combatants and terrorists has stoked this anxiety. About 30 states have already introduced legislation on the subject of UAS operations. (See this issue’s Washington View column.)

To help us try and generate more light and less heat on the subject, we went to Charles W. “Chuck” Johnson, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) project manager for the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) in the NAS Project, a $160-million initiative designed to conduct technology development to reduce technical barriers related to the safety and operational challenges associated with enabling routine UAS access to the NAS. A former FAA air traffic controller and supervisor, and later requirements manager for 16 FAA programs, Johnson has worked at NASA since 1999. Before he took on the UAS in the NAS role in 2010, he served as deputy director of the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility, where numerous NASA science aircraft are housed.

Civil use of UAS