FAA looks to 2016 for drone rules

Shutterstock image: hover drone.

A three-year-old legislative deadline for integrating unmanned aerial systems (UAS) into U.S. commercial airspace passed without being met Sept. 30.  The Federal Aviation Administration is closer to its goal, but significant work remains.

The deadline to develop a framework to integrate drones and control systems into the National Airspace System (NAS) was set by Congress in a 2012 aviation funding bill.

However, the FAA has indicated that it would most likely push past the deadline. A June 2014 Department of Transportation Inspector General report stated the agency would miss the 2015 mark because of "significant technological barriers," including detection and standardized air traffic procedures and other issues.

"In the 2012 FAA reauthorization legislation, Congress told the FAA to come up with a plan for 'safe integration' of UAS by September 30, 2015," says the FAA's UAS website. "Safe integration will be incremental," the agency acknowledged, but noted that it has issued draft rules for commercial drones that weigh under 55 pounds and other measures to help move the process along.

 "We are finalizing our final rule for small unmanned aircraft and will have that out next year," an agency spokesperson told FCW. "Meanwhile, we've granted more than 1,700 exemptions to commercial operators through the Section 333 process. These operations are approved and authorized by the FAA so we can ensure the safety of the public. The FAA has successfully integrated new technologies in our aviation system for decades, and we’re confident we’ll do the same with unmanned aircraft."

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 grants the secretary of Transportation the authority to determine whether an airworthiness certificate is required for a UAS to operate safely in NAS. Certificates allow commercial operators and other organizations to get individual approval for a particular application.

The agency has also issued a roadmap for how it plans to integrate the systems and set up test sites for the technology around the country.

The agency recently filled two executive-level positions to lead the agency's UAS integration effort. Marke "Hoot" Gibson will become senior adviser on UAS integration, while Earl Lawrence will direct the agency's UAS Integration Office, after serving almost five years as director of the FAA's Small Airplane Directorate.

Despite the progress, congressional critics and industry organizations aren't happy about the missed deadline.

During a Sept. 10 hearing by the House Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet, concerning commercial UAS and the deadline, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said the Obama administration had "essentially punted" on the rules.

UAS operators are also impatient. "The FAA has had more than three years to put a small UAS rule in place," Brian Wynne, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said at that hearing. "There's tremendous pent up demand for commercial UAS operations, yet the FAA isn’t expected to meet this deadline."

"The current system of case-by-case approvals isn't a long-term solution for the many commercial operators wanting to fly," Wynn said. He noted that states are also moving to fill the regulatory gap, "at times with laws that they may not have the authority to enact."

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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