[Avionics Today 08-25-2015] The FAA’s progress toward the integration of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) into national airspace is slow but on track, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The report, published in July but made available to the public last week, reaffirmed that, while the more than 4,500 comments the FAA received on its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) were far less than the agency envisioned, it will still likely take 16 months to process and declare a final rule.
|A UAS operated by insurer State Farm under the FAA's section 333 exemption. Photo: State Farm|
With the rule not expected to until late 2016 or early 2017, it is nearly two years behind its original September 2015 deadline. The delay is taking its toll on America’s ability to flourish in the global commercial UAS industry, according to Gerald Dillingham, director of civil aviation issues at the GAO who worked to compile the report — but it may be worth the wait. As technology continues to mature in the absence of a final UAS rule, Avionics Magazine caught up with Dillingham to discuss five important takeaways from the GAO report that investigated the FAA’s march toward integration.
1. The final rule is the first step, but not the final step toward integration
“The rule is a necessary but not sufficient step because, after the rule, the industry and FAA are still going to need some technological advances, specifically sense-and-avoid technology, so that UAVs can integrate or at least be accommodated in the national airspace system,” said Dillingham.
According to the report, several organizations, such as the FAA and NASA, along with industry, have successfully demonstrated detect-and-avoid technology. This technology not only allows for a safer integration of UAS into the National Airspace System (NAS), but is also a critical element of enabling Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS) operations. BLOS operations are vital to future commercial UAS operations for companies such as Amazon and Dominoes, which want to use the tech for aerial delivery services. But even as the technology matures, the FAA still needs to regulate and certify it before it can be worked into integration.
“Everyone recognizes that [detect and avoid] is sort of the holy grail of being able to integrate. If this goes the way other situations like this go, it will be a rapid movement toward integration technology that the FAA will find acceptable because there are multiple entities working on it at this point, both nationally and internationally,” said Dillingham.
2. The rise in UAS incidents with manned aircraft may subside when the final rule is published, but it’s not a panacea
The FAA reported earlier this week that pilot reports of incidents with unmanned aircraft have risen dramatically over the past year. According to the FAA, the number of reports has increased from 238 incidents in all of 2014 to more than 650 UAS sightings by manned aircraft through the first eight months of 2015. Although the FAA believes the increase is due more to a rise in pilot awareness that these incidents need to be reported, safe integration is a large concern.
“To be frank, the fact the FAA can monitor these incidents with the final rule and take action on these incidents, that will have more of an effect,” said Dillingham. “The rule won’t be the end-all for everything, but the combination of the rules and the technology and the FAA’s enforcement will go far to make it less of a problem."
Congress has asked the GAO to look into the increasing issue with UAS incidents with commercial aircraft, according to Dillingham. Over the next few months, the GAO will look into the FAA’s current options, both technological and otherwise, and the actions necessary to encourage safe integration.
3. The United States is already falling behind other countries in commercial UAS integration
As the FAA looks to develop a final rule, countries such as Australia, Japan, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom already allow UAS operations in airspace for purposes such as agriculture or aerial surveying, as well as recreational use.
“With the delay that we are experiencing, these countries will continue to mature their rules and regulations. Their industries will continue to move forward with developing both hardware and software. We are, in a way, going to be in a catch-up position,” said Dillingham.
While other countries are seeing similar technological challenges when it comes to integrating UAS, some, such as France and Australia, are already allowing certain limited BLOS UAS operations. This means that companies have already started to take their business elsewhere, such as Google [X] who is currently conducting testing for Project Wing in Australia.
4. Integration not as simple as following other countries’ examples
The report finds that if UAS were to begin flying in the U.S. today under the current proposed rules, operating restrictions would look similar to other countries already flying. While industry has expressed frustration at the limited access to airspace for UAS, the report finds that the U.S. has a more complicated airspace to maneuver as well as a less mature understanding of UAS operations in the NAS.
“These countries are ahead of us and the reason they’re ahead of us is that they don’t have the same challenges that we have in the U.S. We have the most complex airspace on the planet and a large General Aviation (GA) population,” said Dillingham. According to the FAA, after integration, UASs would share the NAS with more than 300,000 GA aircraft, ranging from amateur-built aircraft, rotorcraft and balloons to highly sophisticated turbojets. This is compared against the U.K.’s 20,000 registered GA aircraft and 8,400 GA aircraft in Australia. The large number of U.S.-registered aircraft may make integrating UAS easier, according to a study by MITRE.
Other countries have been using UAS in commercial capacities for decades, making it simpler to continue integration, but Dillingham notes that the GAO found that certain countries have been forced to dial back operations.
“There are some examples of countries who went out front and allowed drones to participate in commerce, but are now drawing back on those rules to get a better handle on safety,” said Dillingham.
5. When the rule is published it could set the global standard
Dillingham believes that the FAA is unlikely to see any further delays — barring a major incident — and is on track to deliver the final rule by early 2017 at the latest. Furthermore, while the U.S. may be behind now, Dillingham believes the country’s industry can recover ground when the integration finally begins.
“When the rule comes out I think there’s a build-up of technology, research and development, and applications that will give us a big push to bring us if not even with other countries, then ahead of the game again,” said Dillingham. “The FAA is the gold standard for aviation. When the U.S. puts its rules in place, it’s likely we will become the model.”