Although integration into national airspace is out of the question for congressionally ordered September of this year, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) will, indeed, have a final set of rules for operations by this time next year, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) official has confirmed.
During yesterday’s hearing from the Oversight and Government Reform Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, Michael Whitaker, who has served as deputy administrator of the FAA for the past two years, noted that the FAA plans to publish the final rules for small commercial UAS within one year’s time – specifically, before June 17, exactly one year after this session. (The agency’s proposed rules came out roughly four months ago.)
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who is also chairman of the committee’s subcommittee on government operations, said at the hearing, entitled “Drones: The Next Frontier of Commerce?,” that without these rules in place – by authorizing UAS operations on a case-by-case basis through waivers and exemptions – the industry is currently “operating on sort of a helter-skelter basis.”
If the FAA continues giving out Section 333 exemptions at its current pace of 50 per week, Mica explained, by June 17 of next year, we will have a few thousand – a “patchwork” of exemptions, he called it.
“That’s not totally acceptable,” he said.
Although it is notable that the FAA has announced this timeline, the regulatory progress is still not in line with the technological progress of the industry, as brought up by Rep. Lujan Grisham, D-N.M.
“The problem is that this technology is changing every minute – probably every second – as all technology does,” she said. “By time you make those rules, arguably, they could be outdated.”
For instance, Paul Misener, vice president of global public policy at Amazon, confirmed with Mica that the company is developing sense-and-avoid technology for its delivery-by-drone system, but Mica pointed out a roadblock to implementing any safety system: It must first be FAA-approved for use.
Because the agency does not have an office for specifically handling these authorizations, Mica explained, companies will have developed newer technology by the time they receive an OK from the FAA.
“If this is all just balled into normal FAA certification, I don’t think it’s going to succeed,” he warned.
In fact, at a Senate hearing in March of this year, Misener admitted that Amazon’s experimental airworthiness certificate to test its UAS was meaningless because the company had gone on to develop a more advanced aircraft in the time it had taken to receive the certificate from the FAA.
The need for speed when it comes to regulatory action was pointed out by Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), when he noted the technology’s massive economical potential for the country: $82 billion and 100,000 jobs after 10 years of integration into national airspace.
However, he said, the impact of non-integration is just as dramatic, as the U.S. could suffer an economic loss of as much as $27.6 million per day, or $10 billion per year, without commercial unmanned aircraft in national airspace.
“The benefits I just outlined can be recognized immediately,” Wynne stated, “once the necessary rules are put in place to enable commercial operations” of the technology, which is currently at an “exciting and pivotal stage.”
Wynne also discussed a “risk-based, technology-neutral approach” the FAA should take when it finalizes these regulations. This type of approach was demonstrated by the European Aviation Safety Agency in March, when it laid out its Concept of Operations, which separates UAS into three categories: open, specific and certified. A UAS defined as “open,” or low-risk, would not need authorization from an aviation authority.
The FAA’s Whitaker agreed that the agency is “very much aligned” with the industry on taking a similar route.
“We don’t want to necessarily tell you how you’re going to achieve certain levels of safety, but we want to define what those are and what the necessary standards are to get there,” he said.
“When we, for example, get to a final rule, it will provide parameters – and the operations within those parameters. We don’t have to guess what they might be; they will be allowed as long as they continue to be safe.
“As we continue to expand the acceptable range of operations, that same principle will apply,” Whitaker explained.
During the session’s opening statement, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who serves as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, stressed that it is airspace safety that must take first priority.
However, recognizing what he called the “nearly limitless opportunities” UAS will bring, Chaffetz focused on the importance of regulatory action to make integration happen.
“Can [UAS] be overused? Yes,” he said. “But we can get this right. And we must.”