Today, InterDrone, the largest commercial drone show in North America, kicked off at the Rio Suites Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. Daniel Elwell, the FAA’s acting administrator, delivered the event’s first keynote, taking the opportunity to position the FAA as a supporter of unmanned aircraft and their complete integration into America’s airspace.
“We’re not your adversary,” said Elwell in regards to the FAA’s stance toward the drone industry. “We are as invested in integrating unmanned aircraft into the system as you are.”
While some may see the FAA as an overbearing figure that restricts the industry with its many regulations, others value the FAA as a safeguard that enables drone pilots to operate safely while also protecting the safety of those around them.
Technology and Safety Must Play Equal Roles in UAS
Elwell also emphasized that the FAA is in the business of safety, not technology.
I’m not a tech guy, and the FAA is not a tech company. Our business is safety, so when we look at an aircraft, we want to know two basic things: is it reliable and does it play nicely with others. That’s it. Don’t fall out of the sky and don’t crash into other aircraft.
As the industry advances in applications, hardware, and software, there should be equal advancements in safety as well. For those who want to see progress in both federal regulations and the UAS integration, Elwell advises pairing drone products and operations with safety advancements.
“Don’t just make a business case for your product or operation, start making a safety case, because they go hand in hand.”
In addition to an increased attention on safety, Elwell suggested that drone pilots also do the following if they want full airspace integration of UAS:
- Self-report mistakes. This voluntary data reporting allows the FAA to root out areas of risk in the system.
- Don’t be afraid to go after the big issues that affect the larger aircraft community and share the solutions you find with others.
- Share your knowledge. For example, if you develop a new safety enhancement, don’t keep it to yourself for the sake of selling more aircraft than your competitors.
Two organizations Elwell applauded for their promotion of knowledge sharing were CAST and UAST.
The FAA formed the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) in 1998. This organization is a mix of safety professionals from industry and government that shares data and safety ideas. They’ve produced over 200 safety enhancements that are largely responsible for commercial aviation’s historic safety rate—the FAA went over 9 years without a single fatality in commercial aviation.
Safety is a race we run together and CAST wants everyone in the system to finish in the tie for first.
The FAA wanted to carry the great work that CAST had done into the UAS industry. So, in October of 2016, the FAA launched a similar program specifically for the UAS industry called the Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team (UAST).
Hurdles Remain for Full UAS Integration in Airspace
During the keynote, Elwell remained realistic about what issues still need to be addressed before we see full integration of UAS. While many drone pilots are eager to get their waivers to fly at night or over crowds, the FAA has larger fish to fry.
[We’ve taken] steps that bring drones closer to just being a routine operator in our airspace. There are still critical hurdles that need to be cleared…They are issues the FAA cannot tackle alone. Everyone’s interested in drone operations at night and over people, but we need to address the concerns that our national security and law enforcement have first.
Among those are the ability to identify every drone in the airspace. Right now the FAA’s hands are tied by a law that says they cannot require remote ID on unmanned aircraft. Congress knows this is an issue and Elwell hopes that there will be a change to this law, possibly with the upcoming FAA reauthorization.
Despite these hurdles, Elwell says the FAA remains dedicated to UAS integration and is “100% committed” to making UAS a regular part of our airspace.