Innovation has shaped the American economy since the founding of our nation. The Wright brothers and other visionaries created the aviation industry and developed the aircraft manufacturing processes. Today, we stand at the dawn of a new renaissance in aviation. Drone operators across the country are testing the limits of what is possible, and it’s clear we’re only seeing the start of what we can accomplish with this technology. We must follow the path blazed by those aviation pioneers and do all we can to foster this innovation and tap into the full economic and societal benefits of unmanned vehicle systems.
Two years ago, a Federal Aviation Administration regulation went into effect that opened the door for businesses and individuals across the country to fly unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, for commercial purposes. Since the small drone rule, also known as Part 107, was promulgated, more than 170,000 platforms have been registered for commercial purposes and more than 100,000 people have obtained a Remote Pilot Certificate. Generally speaking, under Part 107, operators need to fly under 400 feet, within visual line of sight and during daylight hours.
However, recognizing the need for the rule to be flexible, the FAA created a waiver process to complement Part 107 that allows for expanded types of operations, such as nighttime or beyond line of sight operations, with the approval of the agency. The waivers provide a glimpse at how the drone industry hopes to move forward. An analysis of the nearly 2,000 waivers approved over the last two years found that they were granted to operators across the country, and nearly 92 percent were for nighttime operations. Of the waivers granted to provide inspection and photography services, 95 percent went to small businesses with annual sales of less than $1 million. However, the FAA also granted 191 waivers to first responders who seek to go above and beyond the regulation to keep their communities safe.
The FAA recognizes the tremendous potential of expanded UAS operations and has encouraged the use of these waivers. However, the waiver process isn’t a long-term solution. It can take up to 90 days for an operator to receive a waiver. The newly implemented Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) program will address some of these delays, as it automates the application and approval process for requests to fly in controlled airspace up to 400 feet. Yet operational waiver requests – such as requests to fly at night or beyond visual line of sight – are still being processed manually and can take months to review and approve. Additionally, the FAA advises operators to first seek an operational waiver before seeking an airspace authorization when both are needed.
We need a streamlined regulatory framework that allows for expanded operations without having to approve them on a case-by-case basis. A Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for flights over people was anticipated to be issued more than a year ago, but this next regulatory step has been indefinitely delayed due to security issues. Remote identification could help address these concerns by providing a way to identify and track operators and owners of UAS flying in the airspace – in real time. However, an NPRM for remote identification is not expected until next year, and a final rule is still in the distant future. Until we move forward with rulemaking for remote identification, flights over people and other expanded operations, the goal of further integrating drones into the nation’s airspace remains stalled.
Although more needs to be done, we are making progress in other areas. The Trusted Operator Program, a program to certify professional remote pilots and training organizations to demonstrate reliability, safety, professionalism and gain trust in the UAS industry, will provide its first certifications to operators next month. And in May 2018, the FAA selected 10 participants for a pilot program to help develop a federal policy framework to further airspace integration. This new program enables state, local and tribal government entities to conduct critical research about drone operations while maintaining federal authority over the airspace. The data this pilot program will collect will help inform future rulemaking, inspire expanded operations and allow states and localities to provide input to the FAA to keep our skies safe.
Whether UAS are testing medical deliveries in Reno or providing a new dimension to Drake’s concert tour, the past two years have demonstrated the clear demand for expanded operations from both the public and private sector. Now, sustained industry-government collaboration is needed to foster innovation and allow operators to tap into the full potential of drones.
Brian Wynne is president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
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