Regulation, Unmanned

Enabling the Future of Advanced Air Mobility and Drone Operations in the U.S.

A U.S. House hearing last week featured discussions about advanced air mobility and the future of unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS. It also served as a legislative hearing for The National Drone and Advanced Air Mobility Act. (Photo: Skydio)

A U.S. House hearing held last week on the topic of advanced air mobility featured a discussion of the future of unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, in the United States. It also served as a legislative hearing for The National Drone and Advanced Air Mobility Act. This is a bill that would enable a coordinated Federal initiative to accelerate civilian UAS operations. The act would also support research and development related to advanced air mobility (AAM).

Space & Aeronautics Subcommittee Chairman Brian Babin explained in his opening remarks that enabling the next generation of UAS will require further research and development as well as improvements to the regulatory framework. “Commercial use of UAS and AAM have the potential to carry out a wide range of missions across a broad range of sectors, including agriculture, weather monitoring, critical infrastructure, transportation, public safety, and disaster relief,” he said.

House Rep. Babin warned that many U.S. companies are choosing to conduct R&D in other countries because of the delays in the process of integrating UAS into the national airspace. “We’re losing out on the economic benefits of having American businesses compete in this rapidly growing industry,” he added.

Chairman Frank Lucas remarked upon the incredible potential of UAS and AAM technologies in his opening statement. He mentioned both electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft as well as electric short take-off and landing (eSTOL) vehicles as two examples of the transformational technology that has emerged.

Rep. Lucas previously introduced the National Drone and Advance Air Mobility Initiative Act. He stated his plans to reintroduce the bill, which would establish an initiative for coordinating UAS activities in the U.S. The bill would also help to expand the necessary workforce for this industry.

“The demand for UAS is growing exponentially,” he explained. “In 2018, the drone services market was worth less than $5 billion. But it’s predicted to grow to more than $63 billion by 2025. The market for Advanced Air Mobility is expected to increase to $115 billion by 2035, creating more than 280,000 new jobs.”

Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, Ranking Member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, also spoke during last week’s hearing. “Aviation is critical to this country’s economy and global leadership,” she remarked. “Significant economic and societal benefits are at stake.”

Rep. Lofgren underscored applications for drones such as detecting and responding to wildfires, a key issue facing many parts of the country today. Drones also make it possible to conduct industrial inspections more safely and to perform environmental monitoring, she noted.

Also speaking at the hearing as a witness was Dr. Jamey Jacob, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Institute for Research and Education as well as the Williams Chair in Energy and Professor of Aerospace Engineering at Oklahoma State University. He commented that the university has been able to use UAS to improve weather observations and forecasting thanks to support from programs like the NASA University Leadership Initiative and the National Science Foundation National Robotics Initiative, as well as projects with the FAA. Their work, along with efforts by other universities, will help to accelerate the adoption of solutions for advanced air mobility in urban settings. Advanced capabilities in weather forecasting are also immensely useful during natural disasters such as floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes, Dr. Jacob shared.

“We have founded the LaunchPad AAM Center and Flight Range with the Osage Nation and Tulsa Innovation Laboratories to develop novel programs to support small business innovation and provide unique flight-testing solutions, helping to bridge this divide,” he explained.

“Facilities such as the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma test site as part of the FAA BEYOND program are critical to U.S. capabilities,” Dr. Jacob added. “Further development of these and other facilities that allow testing of this technology to evaluate use cases and performance is much needed to provide crucial safety data for the FAA, such as advancing beyond visual line of sight drone operations.”

Dr. Parimal Kopardekar, Director of the NASA Aeronautics Research Institute, stated during the hearing, “NASA invests in aeronautics research to address the most critical pressing challenges by developing and transferring key technologies to the FAA and industry.”

He explained that UAS traffic management, or UTM, will enable safe, scaled-up operations of small drones in low-altitude airspace. NASA is collaborating with the FAA and industry leaders to research topics like airspace integration, aircraft noise levels, community acceptance, and safety.

“NASA Aeronautics has committed significant resources to ensure that UAS and AAM concepts and technologies will mature, scale, and be safely operationalized,” Dr. Parimal Kopardekar remarked. “U.S. leadership in this sector cannot be taken for granted, as other countries are closely following our progress and seeking to surpass us.”


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