Culture clash in FAA's drone push

Shutterstock image. Copyright: Ivan Cholakov 

Silicon Valley's fast-paced, iterative style is colliding with decades of government and aviation culture, as federal agencies and the private sector try to hash out new rules for integrating drone aircraft into U.S. airspace.

"Aviation is incredibly safe," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said at a May 3 Bloomberg Government event. "Not a lot of people question that they will reach their destination safely ... because we have become conditioned to understand that [traditional aviation] is an incredibly safe mode of transportation and there are a lot of controls in place to insure the highest levels of safety."

The drone business, on the other hand, "comes more out of Silicon Valley technology and it's a different paradigm," Huerta said. "We just need to figure out how they co-exist."

Huerta compared the model to a smartphone with automatic updates.

"You turn it on and what's the first thing it does? It downloads a bunch of patches. It is constantly being improved. So, in a sense, we are all beta testers," Huerta said. "Not many people want beta testers flying around [the national airspace]."

Huerta said the FAA is on track with many programs that will support wider and safer operation of commercial and private unmanned aircraft. These include crash tests of smaller unmanned aircraft; integrating a new air traffic control system currently under development by NASA; and an automated Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability that will allow more efficient registration of unmanned aircraft operated within five miles of an airport.

The NASA plan "has great potential," Huerta said. Such a system would probably be overlaid with the FAA's current air traffic control infrastructure rather than creating a new one from scratch. The new drone-tracking capabilities might be based on wireless technology. "We're looking at LTE as the basis for this," he said, as well as anticipating 2019 for UTE's "planning horizon."

Huerta also touted the low altitude notification effort as a key that will unlock drone operation capabilities across important swathes of the country.

Right now, the FAA must process thousands of waivers every week to allow the aircrafts' operations in close proximity to airports around the country. Detailed flight plans have to be filed by operators along with those waiver requests. Those plans have to be reviewed and approved by the agency, which can take 90 days, according to Huerta.

The new system will allow third parties to use FAA-provided digital maps to build and submit compliant flight plans to the agency which can then quickly review them using the same mapping data. The rapid reviewing process, he said, is important for commercial drone operators, particularly in metropolitan areas to begin operations.

"All of New Jersey is within five miles of an airport," he said.

The FAA's Center of Excellence for UAS Research also released the first report on "ground collision severity evaluation" in late April. The tests are a step in allowing operation of unmanned aircraft over people, an important capability for commercial drones.

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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