Regulation, Unmanned

Beyond the Airspace: Drone Integration Dependent on Industry

Bloomberg Government NEXT Infrastructure Panel

Bloomberg Government NEXT Infrastructure panelists: FAA’s Dan Elwell; Intel’s Anil Nanduri; GE’s Darby Becker; Fort Collins, Colorado Mayor Wade Troxell; and Bloomberg News’ Alan Levin (Avionics)

Integration of small UAS into U.S. national airspace will involve a close collaboration between industry and regulators, with the latter exercising “regulatory humility,” according to technology leaders speaking at a Bloomberg Government NEXT Infrastructure Event panel May 16 in Washington.

Executives from General Electric, Intel and the FAA gave insight into the UAS Integration Pilot Program tasked with exploring new ways that UAS can safely and effectively operate at low altitudes. Currently, small UAS operations generally must remain within the operators’ lines of sight, stay below 400 feet and fly only during the day. The FAA wants to expand those limitations.

“We’re adopting a crawl-walk-run concept, regulatorily,” said FAA Acting Administrator Dan Elwell, who further explained that the many challenges facing the industry include scale, volume and pace. “We are approaching the situation with regulatory humility. … We’re counting on the technical experts in the community to tell us how to [integrate drones] safely.”

Safety is the crux of the matter; the FAA said it would not budge on the safety standards it exercises over its manned aviation counterparts — especially regarding beyond-line-of-sight operations.

“We need assurances that any drone, any unmanned aircraft operating in controlled airspace is identifiable and trackable,” said Elwell. “We cannot have operational airspace with unidentified objects.”

One key to this will be to gather as much operational data as possible from the industry to prove use cases.

Intel’s Anil Nanduri, VP of new technology group and GM of UAS, noted that all the testing the company performs on its drones, dubbed “fireworks,” are done out of the country. Its unmanned tech, he said, is designed with safety to the extent that it is “safer than a baseball flying by you in a baseball field.”

Nanduri also said figuring out unmanned traffic management (UTM) would be a big step toward integration. Intel is currently looking into using unmanned technology for inspections and analyzing that data.

GE uses predictive analytics and other artificial intelligence abilities to improve asset performance, according to general counsel Darby Becker.

Both GE and Intel are supporting some of the 10 awardees in the FAA’s pilot program that would potentially feed into that data collection.

When asked how soon they might be able to certify unmanned operations over humans, Elwell said the FAA already has some rules that would apply today. “We’re not crafting new or different regulations,” he said. “We’re certifying under existing regulations, going line by line. … These regulations can be adapted for remotely piloted vehicles.”

As far as using unmanned technology in services such as package delivery, Nanduri said that won’t be ready for a while.

“How do you deliver to the 11thfloor of a building? Because you can’t get through the door [with the drone],” said Nanduri. He estimated that communities might start seeing some proven use cases within the next five years.

Public acceptance, the panelists agreed, will be a primary driver in the widespread adoption and appreciation of incorporating drones into society. And technology such as Intel’s Shooting Start drones or unmanned assistance in saving lives might pave the way there, noted Becker.

“We are at the Kitty Hawk moment in this technology,” said Mayor Wade Troxell of Fort Collins, Colorado. Wade’s community is seeing positive uses of drones. In one instance, a drone equipped with thermal-imaging sensors located a missing woman. “Drones make everywhere an airport. Getting it working in cities proactively improves adoption and appreciation.”

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