An FAA Reauthorization that encourages innovation is critical to the future of commercial UAS use.
The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 established a foundation for government and industry collaboration to advance the integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System (NAS). As part of this, the FAA is currently working on finalizing rules for commercial and public use of small UAS (systems weighing 55 lbs or less). The agency is also granting permission for limited commercial use on a case-by-case basis under Section 333 of the 2012 act. But more can and should be done.
The congressionally mandated deadline for the integration of UAS into the NAS was September 30, 2015 — the same day the current FAA reauthorization measure was set to expire. The FAA did not meet the integration deadline, and Congress passed a six-month extension for the new FAA reauthorization measure. On Feb. 3, 2016, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee introduced an FAA reauthorization measure entitled, the Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act or AIRR. The legislation inludes provisions that AUVSI has been advocating for during the last year, including establishing the creation of a risk-based permitting process and focusing on the developement of a UAS traffic management system that will help integrate UAS into the existing airspace infrastructure and ensure the continued safety of the airspace.
While it is unclear when the FAA will publish final rulemaking on small UAS, these steps remain critical and the most immediate way to encourage UAS innovation and ensure the continued safety of the NAS. Whether within the context of the small UAS rule, through the reauthorization or by other means, AUVSI has outlined a 2016 policy agenda to accelerate the commercial use of UAS, promote safety and expand UAS research.
Implement a “Risk-Based, Technology Neutral” Regulatory Framework.
Any UAS regulations proposed in FAA reauthorization should rely on a safety risk management process that assesses the entirety of a UAS operation instead of solely regulating a specific vehicle or system. This type of flexible framework will allow for the FAA to accommodate innovation, rather than require new rules each time a new technology emerges. Following a detailed risk analysis of all factors involved, which may include system weight, available frequency spectrum, population density and overlying airspace, operations may be regarded as “safe” and granted access to the airspace with minimal regulatory barriers.
Expand Section 333 Exemption Authority to Include Beyond-Line-of-Sight.
According to the authority provided under Section 333 of the 2012 act, the FAA has granted permission for limited commercial use of UAS on a case-by-case basis. This process can be used to allow for more uses of this technology in the short term by giving the FAA the clear authority to address Section 333 exemption requests for beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations. These operations are crucial to many commercial uses of UAS. As written, the underlying provision does not specifically allow for beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations. Ultimately, the FAA reauthorization measure should support and accelerate the development of consensus standards, regulations, and other guidance addressing the technical and operational challenges limiting certification of UAS, thereby eliminating the need for additional 333 exemptions.
Develop a Holistic R&D Plan for UAS Integration.
The FAA reauthorization legislation should provide a comprehensive UAS research and development (R&D) plan. There is a lot of good work already being done, and better coordination will ensure we’re maximizing the impact of these efforts. While the FAA’s Pathfinder Program and UAS Center of Excellence have great promise for success, we need better visibility on how they will fit into the larger UAS integration picture, which would include all types of airspace and sizes of UAS. This plan should outline government and industry roles, milestones and dates for advancing outstanding research needs.
Make FAA-Designated UAS Test Sites Eligible for Federal Funding.
Congress should consider making the test sites eligible for federal funding under current FAA offices and programs that are engaged with UAS activities in order to help them perform the valuable research needed for integration. This would not specifically add new funding for the test sites; rather, it could allow for them to receive existing federal funding and give industry guidance and incentive to better utilize the test sites.
Advance the Development of a UAS Traffic Management System.
Congress should also facilitate the development of an operational UAS Traffic Management System/Network to ensure the safe and efficient use of the airspace. While some commercial UAS operations will occur at low levels, this airspace may become complex with established navigation routes, and point-to-point route segments, requiring specific equipage requirements. A traffic management system will integrate UAS into the existing national airspace infrastructure and ensure the continued safety of the airspace.
Elevate UAS Integration into the National Airspace as a National Priority.
Leadership and coordination with industry and government partners is absolutely critical to ensure the U.S. regains trailblazer status in this international industry. As UAS integration must be done in coordination with NextGen, there is an opportunity to consider linking the two efforts and their resources more effectively going forward.