As many as 7,500 small unmanned aircraft could be operating in US airspace within five years if the federal government establishes needed standards for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), says the head of the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta tells reporters 7 October that his agency took an important step today towards allowing more UAV operations by releasing three documents.

Those include the FAA’s 74-page UAS “roadmap”, a plan the FAA says will help regulators establish requirements UAS operators must meet in order to access more US airspace in the coming five to ten years.

“We have made very solid progress,” Huerta says during a press conference in Washington DC. “The roadmap addresses the policies, regulations, technologies and procedures that we will need in order to successfully integrate unmanned aircraft on a routine basis.”

“This document outlines what we need to do to safety integrate unmanned aircraft into our national airspace,” says Huerta.

He adds that UAS must be able to identify other aircraft and operate safely if they lose wireless contact with their operator.

As part of its plan, the FAA will select six UAS “test ranges” by the end of the year to research UAS and determine certification and navigation requirements. Regulators have received 25 proposals for potential test sites in 26 states.

Selection of test sites will be based on factors such as geography and climate, he said.

The other documents include a 26-page “comprehensive plan” from the FAA’s Joint Planning and Development Office that details how multiple government agencies can work together to integrate UAS into US airspace.

The plan’s outlines a number of goals, including allowing operators to fly small UAV’s on line-of-sight flights without special authorisation by 2015.

The FAA also made public today a final privacy policy applying to the six test sites. The policy requires site operators to develop privacy policies and to comply with local, state and federal civil liberty and privacy laws. In addition, operators at test sites must have written plans describing how they will use and retain test data.

Trade groups representing UAS companies praised the FAA’s moves.

The FAA’s roadmap “gives our industry and the American public much reason for optimism,” Marion Blakey, head of the Aerospace Industries Association, says during the press conference.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, says the FAA’s documents will help advance UAS missions, which can include scientific research, responding to natural disasters, helping fight wildfires and searching for missing persons.

The FAA is under the gun to integrate UAS into national airspace by 2015, as required by the 2012 FAA reauthorisation bill.

Huerta says the FAA still intends to meet that goal.

Currently, private companies wishing to test UAS must obtain “special airworthiness certificates” from regulators. Only public agencies, like law enforcement agencies, can operate UAS, and they must first receive a “certificate or waiver or authorisation,” according to the FAA.