General Atomics Aeronautical Systems' Altair Receives FAA's First Commercial UAS Airworthiness Certificate

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems' Altair Receives FAA's First Commercial UAS Airworthiness Certificate


Sep 28, 2005

Experimental Certificate Opens Door to New Applications for Unmanned Aircraft

SAN DIEGO – September 28, 2005 -- General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI), a leading manufacturer of unmanned aircraft and high resolution surveillance and radar imaging systems, today announced that its Altair® high-altitude long endurance (HALE) unmanned aircraft system (UAS) has received the nation’s first experimental airworthiness certificate issued for a UAS by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), providing greater flexibility for the aircraft to operate in the National Airspace System (NAS).

“Operating an FAA-certified unmanned aircraft in civil airspace offers great potential for the technological advancement of scientific and commercial research, while also providing our nation with the operational flexibility to conduct certain homeland security missions,” said Thomas J. Cassidy, Jr., president, Aircraft Systems Group, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. “This achievement would not have been possible without two key supporters: NASA Dryden Flight Research Center [DFRC] in the development and operational advancement of Altair and the Access 5 Project’s leadership in working with the FAA and the UAV National Industry Team [UNITE] on solutions to allow for UAS operations in the NAS. The efforts of these supporters and the FAA’s early commitment to expand access to the NAS made this certification a reality.”

Today Altair routinely operates in NAS under a national Certificate of Authorization (COA) which allows it to fly in restricted airspace during takeoff and landing before quickly ascending to altitudes high above commercial air traffic. Under its new one-year experimental certificate, Altair will not only be able to fly at higher altitudes, but also expands its geographic operations. Similar to a COA, an UAS experimental certificate contains certain conditions that must be met to ensure a level of safety equivalent to manned aircraft operations in the NAS. This includes “good weather” conditions and a requirement for a pilot and observer, both of whom may either be on the ground or in an accompanying “chase” plane. While COAs are issued to the customer (e.g. NASA, NOAA), the experimental certificate has been issued directly to GA-ASI, providing it with the opportunity to use Altair for company purposes such as experimental flight testing, marketing demonstrations and crew training.

The process engaged for the issuance of the experimental certificate is part of the Access 5 Project’s four-step plan designed to develop UAS systems, infrastructure and regulations that will enable routine UAS operations in civil airspace for emerging commercial and civil applications. Steps one and two are currently funded by NASA. Specifically, step one addresses access and operations of UASs above 43,000 feet and involves identifying an experimental application and certification process. Step two addresses UAS access and operations above 18,000 feet and identifies a type certification basis for classifying UASs.

“The formation of the Access 5 Project/UNITE alliance marked an important moment in history as it has positively affected the evolution of the aerospace industry throughout the world. The pledge of time and resources by government and industry to the Access 5 vision has enabled this nation to issue its first experimental certificate,” stated Dave Buis, co-lead of the Access 5 Project and industry director of UNITE. “The U.S. must remain committed to this effort so that emerging markets, jobs and national security benefits can be realized in our lifetime.”

Altair, a high-altitude version of Predator® B, was specifically designed for scientific and commercial research missions that require high-altitude endurance, reliability and increased payload capacity. Built in partnership with NASA’s DFRC for its Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) program, it has been operational since 2003 with NASA and NOAA. Featuring an 86 ft. wingspan and 3,000 lb. fuel capacity, Altair can fly above 52,000 feet and remain airborne for over 30 hours. It is configured with a fault-tolerant dual-architecture flight control system, triple redundant avionics and a Honeywell turbo prop engine for high reliability. To ensure responsive to air traffic advisements during flights in the NAS, Altair also has an air traffic control relay and will have an automated collision avoidance system.

“General Atomics Aeronautical Systems’ receipt of an experimental airworthiness certificate for Altair is a significant advancement for unmanned aircraft systems development,” said Chris Jennison, project manager, Altair missions, NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center. “GA-ASI and the entire UAS community can be proud of this breakthrough, bringing the day closer when the commercial and scientific use of this kind of aircraft is ordinary and routine."

The experimental certificate is the latest addition to Altair’s growing list of “firsts,” which include being the first UAS to demonstrate surveillance with a 360-degree maritime surface search radar; fly from Southern California to Alaska; fly above the Arctic Circle with over-the-horizon control; be integrated and operated in Canadian National Air Space with over-the-horizon control; carry high value scientific instruments for ocean and atmospheric research conducted by NOAA and NASA; and monitor forest fires adjacent to the Alaska pipeline.

About the Partners

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI), an affiliate of privately held General Atomics, provides comprehensive solutions for military and commercial applications worldwide. The company’s Aircraft Systems Group is a leading designer and manufacturer of proven, reliable remotely operated aircraft (ROA) systems, including the Predator UAS series, and provides pilot training and support services for UAS field operations. The Reconnaissance Systems Group designs, manufactures and integrates the Magnum (Raptor View) high-resolution EO/IR and Lynx® SAR/GMTI sensor systems for both manned and unmanned aircraft. Leading the industry to new levels of performance, reliability, and operational capability since its establishment in 1993, the company has expanded the acceptance and application of unmanned aircraft systems within the United States and among allied forces around the world. GA-ASI is committed to providing immediately deployable transformational technology for military operations, weapons systems and civil missions. For more information, please visit

The Dryden Flight Research Center is NASA's premier installation for aeronautical flight research and is chartered to research, develop, verify and transfer advanced aeronautics, space and related technologies for atmospheric flight operations. A tenant organization at Edwards Air Force Base, the center flies a variety of specialized research aircraft within a 20,700 -square mile restricted airspace test range. NASA Dryden is associated with many important technological milestones in aviation and space access, including supersonic and hypersonic flight, digital fly-by-wire control systems, supercritical and forward-swept wings, and the space shuttles. Dryden continues to conduct projects that support NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission by contributing to revolutionary advances in aeronautics technologies, access to space at reduced cost and improved safety, and security for global civil aviation. It also supports NASA's human space flight program as an alternate landing site for the space shuttle orbiters, having been the site of 50 space shuttle landings since the first orbital flight in April 1981. For more information, see

Access 5 is a collaborative project established between government and industry, with primary sponsorship and funding by NASA’s Vehicle Systems Program in the Aeronautics Mission Directorate. In October the project will transition to the Airspace Systems Program. The goal of Access 5 is to promote safe and reliable integration, as well as routine access of HALE UAS in the NAS. Working in concert with the FAA, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, industry and others, Access 5 is systematically evaluating all relevant technology, policy, regulatory and infrastructure issues through four-incremental phases that will result in the development of recommendations to integrate HALE UASs safely into the NAS for routine operations. These recommendations which will benefit the global UAS community as it moves to utilize UASs routinely for a variety of applications such as border and security surveillance, fire-monitoring, assessment of natural disasters, weather, storm monitoring, scientific research and more. For more information, see

Altair, Predator and Lynx are registered trademarks of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc.

Additional information may be obtained by contacting the following:

Kimberly Kasitz

Public Relations Manager

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc.


Cyndi Wegerbauer

The Access 5 Project

+1 (858) 442-92475

Alan Brown

NASA Dryden

+1 (661) 276-2665