On Nov. 7, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released its first roadmap outlining the steps necessary to safely integrate UAS into the U.S. national airspace system (NAS). The document offers three perspectives: accommodation, integration and evolution.
Accommodation is where things currently stand. The FAA applies special mitigations and procedures to allow UAS operations in the NAS on a case-by-case basis. In the near term – that is, less than five years – accommodation will be the prevailing means by which UAS can access the NAS. Research and development will be the priority during this phase.
Integration will begin in the near term and expand over the next five to 10 years. The FAA will establish threshold performance requirements to authorize greater access to the NAS, with the initial focus on small UAS (less than 55 pounds). In addition, regulations and procedures will be introduced or revised to support routine UAS operations.
The FAA aims to reach evolution over the long term, which the agency defines as greater than 10 years. Although everything from regulations and procedures to technologies and training will be set, nothing will be considered static. The agency emphasizes that as the NAS evolves over the next 13 to 15 years, so too must UAS in order to avoid obsolescence.
The publication of the roadmap was followed by the FAA, on Dec. 30, selecting six sites across the country to serve as research and test centers for UAS. These sites – comprising locations in Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia – are the most tangible evidence yet that civil and commercial UAS are a coming reality.
The manifest purpose of these venues is to lay the groundwork for the integration of UAS into the NAS. Yet, a more latent objective will also be accomplished: creating awareness of and familiarity with the technology and its civil and commercial applications. In fact, the mere announcement of the sites has already gotten the ball rolling in this regard, as the FAA's disclosure was covered by major media outlets.
By the end of this year, the FAA must fulfill its congressional mandate to codify formal regulations for UAS operations. If the test site announcement is any indication, a steady drumbeat will build as the weeks and months progress, and more major media coverage will ensue, with most casual news observers gaining at least a basic understanding that something significant is taking place.
In between the two official steps forward came an unofficial one. In early December, Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder and CEO, appeared on 60 Minutes and unveiled the company's plans to use autonomous UAS to deliver packages to customers.
Amazon's UAS-delivery initiative is a research and development project, and autonomous UAS are not even on the FAA's agenda at this point. But Bezos – intentionally or not – raised the public's awareness regarding the potential commercial applications of UAS.
And he does have some well-earned credibility. Bezos was, after all, a key figure in establishing an e-commerce sector that has grown exponentially over the past 20 years, and Amazon has long been at the forefront of the industry. Among the confluence of factors that have contributed to his continued success, his vision to see how a marketplace evolves and his ability to adapt to that evolution likely rank near the top.
So, an industry titan has his eye on UAS to transform his business, and he declared his vision to the country. That is exactly what the nascent UAS industry needs: prominent business leaders backing the technology's commercial viability.
In order for this sector to achieve consequential market penetration, the FAA needs to continue its progress, and the public needs to be made aware of what UAS can offer. The late-2013 developments were a good start. 2014 promises even more.