Even though Congress has mandated a deadline in 2015 for integrating unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into U.S. airspace, that deadline will probably not be met. However, increasing attention from many sources outside the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is focused on how safety concerns will be addressed.
Typically, the safety conversation boils down to how to avoid collisions between conventionally piloted aircraft and UAS, and UAS crash landings. That’s a fair departure point for thoughtful discourse, but as someone who had responsibility for safety at the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA, I believe we need to consider the broader picture. UAS have tremendous life-saving potential when lost people need to be found; when wildfires develop; when tornadoes hit; and when power lines, oil rigs and bridges need close inspection. Almost every day, there is news of a new idea about how to gain valuable social benefits from this technology without having to put humans in dangerous positions. We need to balance our safety concerns about UAS with the safety gains we can realize from those operations.
Achieving that balanced approach to UAS regulation means recognizing the need for prudent first steps to get a number of these systems into the airspace. In addition to the immediate benefits, we can obtain useful operational data that will help us enhance UAS safety and allow this industry to develop and grow. Dragging our feet on developing a rational regulatory regime that provides clarity for the public, hobbyists and more sophisticated UAS developers and users will stifle innovation, delay the safety improvements that come with operational experience and postpone the benefits this technology promises. We will also see an increase in flights by those who fly UAS illegally, ignoring the FAA’s restrictions and potentially creating unsafe conditions.
In developing new regulations, the entire UAS community — government and industry alike — must also take on the challenge of informing and educating the public about how real safety risks are being addressed and mitigated. A recent Washington Post report, for instance, erroneously used examples of selective and outdated military UAS accidents in hazardous flying conditions to paint a dire picture of what problems might be engendered by UAS activities in the domestic airspace. That kind of sensational journalism doesn’t promote the clear-eyed and rational discussion we should have on regulating UAS.
Currently, we have an unstable regulatory environment, with only a handful of licensed operators, plus those who are exempt because they are in the hobbyist category. Without clear guidance, this is a recipe for trouble until the FAA publishes its small UAS proposed rule and moves on to other UAS categories. And while we appreciate the technical expertise that is going into the development of new regulations, we believe the Obama administration needs to designate an official who will take a more global policy approach to safety but one expeditiously deriving the potential benefits of widespread UAS applications.
On the positive side, the FAA’s Small Unmanned Aircraft System Aviation Rulemaking Committee has proposed a smart step-by-step approach to full UAS integration. The FAA’s six designated test sites will help us obtain valuable data to enhance the safety of UAS technical systems and to pinpoint potential safety issues. And the recent action by the FAA to entertain license exemptions for filmmakers prior to the issuance of the small UAS rule is a welcome step. AIA supported the applications for those exemptions through a joint letter with the Motion Picture Association of America to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. Furthering progress requires us to keep taking these kinds of steps.
We should not forget that there’s a global competition ongoing to develop UAS applications. A decade after the Wright brothers flew, the United States found that it was lagging far behind European aviation capabilities and had to make a concerted effort to catch up. For the sake of the U.S. economy and society, that historic mistake should not be repeated by needlessly slowing the safety regulatory process for UAS.