By Rick Domingo, FAA Flight Standards Service Executive Director
Officially known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), drones are everywhere. The first two words in the title of this article offer a succinct summary of their selling points. The utility is obvious: drones enable an astonishing range of operations and activities, with more added all the time. The accessibility advantage is also clear. Virtually anyone can fund the modest cost of training for a remote pilot certificate and find a drone at the desired price point.
Now let’s talk about that third word, “safety” — which, of course, is the FAA’s top priority. As UAS increase in number, technical complexity, and sophistication, interest in their utility and accessibility expands. This expansion has created regulatory and technical challenges for the FAA and its parent organization, the Department of Transportation.
Yes to Building Blocks — No to Roadblocks
As it has done since the dawn of the drone age, the FAA seeks to enable maximum exercise of UAS utility and accessibility, and to do that in a way that assures maximum safety for everyone in the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS). Virtually from the start, the FAA took the position it holds today: UAS are aircraft. The ultimate goal is to fully integrate them into the NAS so they can safely and seamlessly operate side-by-side with manned aircraft, occupying the same airspace and using many of the same air traffic management systems and procedures.
As the saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know when you begin working with a new technology. That’s why the story of UAS integration has included a series of practices that largely rely on operational segregation to maintain safety. The driving idea is that incremental introduction via accommodation practices can provide “training wheels” while we learn.
So we selected several UAS Test Sites in 2013 to conduct research and help identify the right questions. Another important step was promulgation of the first two FAA rules specifically for UAS: an Interim Final Rule on Registration and Marking Requirements for Small Unmanned Aircraft (14 CFR part 48) in December 2015, and the Small UAS regulation (14 CFR part 107) in June 2016. The regulatory structure now includes 14 CFR part 89, Remote Identification of UAS, and an amendment to 14 CFR part 107, both effective in 2021.
Through the experience gained under these rules, and also through several innovative partnerships between the FAA and aviation community partners, we collectively learned a lot about which questions to ask. We also started to formulate a few answers and, as noted above, we have used this knowledge to add a few more building blocks to the regulatory structure for UAS. The Remote ID rule provides a safety and security foundation for more complex drone operations. The amended part 107 rule allows operators of small drones to fly over people and at night under certain conditions.
More Integration Strategies and Tools
The FAA also has a number of integration projects underway. In this issue, you’ll learn about efforts to enable beyond visual line of sight operations and complex activities involving multiple drones beyond visual line of sight. You will read about the Collegiate Training Initiative program for UAS, and the highly innovative work on development of a UAS Traffic Management (UTM) ecosystem. We’ll also take a look at Advanced Air Mobility (AAM), the vision for using highly automated aircraft to transport passengers or cargo for hire.
We’ve done a lot — with clearly a lot still to do. But we have made a solid start toward the ultimate goal of maximizing the utility, accessibility, and safety of UAS.