Who’s New in the Neighborhood?
By Tom Hoffmann, FAA Safety Briefing Managing Editor
“Man must rise above the Earth — to the top of the atmosphere and beyond — for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives.” –Socrates
The FAA’s continuing mission is to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world. Although it’s succinctly stated, the FAA’s mission statement is far from being a simple endeavor. Today’s National Airspace System (NAS) is in fact far more complex than ever before, and it needs to continually evolve to accommodate the ever-changing landscape of the aerospace industry. It’s not an overstatement to say we’re at the crossroads of an entirely new era in aviation. We’re in the “now” stage of transformative changes — changes that will encourage exploration and entrepreneurship to new heights (literally and figuratively), but also challenge government and industry to develop a framework that maintains harmony and safety across the broadening spectrum of NAS users.
This Just In …
We’re already starting to see how the confluence of these new NAS entrants intermixing with traditional airspace users is playing out. Adding to that challenge is the near breakneck speed at which these changes are occurring. Hardly a week goes by these days without game-changing innovations or ideas in the aerospace industry being heralded in the news. Just as we worked on this issue, United Airlines announced plans to research the use of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicles to shuttle passengers to and from hub locations — a technology that not only offers a cleaner, quieter, and more efficient means of transportation, but also promises to transform how people get around in major cities. Helping make this concept of advanced air mobility a reality is California-based Joby Aviation’s new partnership with NASA, which will begin developmental testing of eVTOL prototypes this spring, and a certification agreement with the FAA that will lay the groundwork for commercial operations.
Another recent milestone moment occurred with American Robotic’s historic announcement of autonomous beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations with its Scout system, a network of remotely sited “drones-in-a-box.” Sporting cutting-edge artificial intelligence and acoustic sensor technology to help detect and mitigate potential conflicts, these drones may help create pathways towards other types of ground-breaking commercial applications for UAS.
Supersonic travel has also surged in recent headlines, buoyed by the FAA’s final rule in January to facilitate the safe development of civil supersonic aircraft. The rule streamlines and clarifies procedures to obtain FAA approval for supersonic flight testing, a landmark step for allowing industry to bring viable and safe products to the market. The rule also helps set the stage for an announcement of a newly expanded agreement between NASA and Aerion Supersonic to continue researching propulsion technologies that may one day allow a new generation of commercial aircraft to travel at speeds between Mach 3 and Mach 5. The vision of this ultra-high-speed global mobility solution would be to transport a person from one point to another, anywhere on the globe, in under three hours.
Heading a bit higher in the atmosphere, the FAA licensed 41 commercial space operations (launches and reentries) in 2020, the most in the agency’s history. Those operations included a record 39 launches, including the first-ever NASA crewed mission to be licensed by the FAA. For 2021, the FAA is forecasting the number of licensed operations could reach 50 or more. Some estimate 100 or more per year in the not-too-distant future once space tourism really takes off.
A Balanced Approach
Space exploits aside, there’s no doubt we’re in the midst of something special, exciting, and quite literally, life-changing here in our own atmosphere. Technology and innovation are enabling ways of envisioning and leveraging the NAS like we’ve never seen before. Whether facilitating infrastructure changes required for this type of sea change, or helping develop the technological and design solutions that will enable these systems to operate safely and harmoniously, the FAA is uniquely poised to provide the strategic direction that will propel these innovations forward.
Key to this strategy will be the FAA’s ability to remain nimble in how it manages regulations and policy. This includes keeping an eye towards performance-based requirements and risk/data-driven decisions. These forward-thinking philosophies, coupled with a reliance on thorough research and development, will allow the FAA to continue taking incremental steps towards achieving a NAS that is open to new entrants, but with the necessary guardrails to ensure safety for all.
A Pathway to Success
The recent Remote Identification (RID) and Operations Over People rules (discussed in more detail in this issue) are prime examples of the building block regulations that are crucial to UAS integration efforts and to the safety and security groundwork necessary for more complex operations. In that same vein are the agency’s collaborative efforts with government, industry, and academia in developing UAS Traffic Management (UTM) capabilities that aim to safely and efficiently manage low altitude national airspace. Through its work in the UTM Pilot Program, the FAA is exploring ways to advance safety, innovation, and accessibility for all NAS users while also providing a basis for future policy and standards development. (See the article “Sharing the Skies Safely” for more on UTM.)
We see the same balanced approach with safety and innovation in how the FAA recently streamlined its regulations governing commercial space launch and reentry licensing. The new rule facilitates greater growth and progress in the aerospace industry, while maintaining public safety. This new regulatory landscape, together with the Department of Transportation’s role in the National Space Council, is evidence of a strong commitment toward advancing America’s space policy and strategy, but also an acknowledgement of the need for collaboration and incremental growth. (See the article “Dreaming of Space” for more details on this growing sector.)
While safety is paramount for the FAA in all of its endeavors, it’s important to not lose sight of the many benefits and efficiencies that are being realized as a result of these innovations, particularly in the vastly expanding UAS arena. Just a few examples of positive applications include the ability to assist with search and rescue operations during natural disasters, provide aerial thermography reconnaissance for forest fires, and more recently, facilitate the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines and at-home test kits. Despite fears that drones will hurt the job market, these new NAS entrants are in many cases additive to the industries they support. They help bring new perspectives to getting a job done more safely and efficiently and provide opportunities for robust economic growth and job creation. (See the article “Don’t Fear the Drone!” for more perspective on this.)
Finally, the ability to support these NAS-expanding innovations and ideas requires inspiring a new generation of thinkers and doers. Through its new Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI), the FAA is able to work with certain colleges, universities, and technical schools to prepare students for a career in UAS. These schools, which must apply for this CTI recognition, will have access to FAA resources and materials, share best practices and curricula with other schools, and, through industry networking opportunities, allow students to apply for internships to advance their careers in UAS. (See the article “Engaging with Academia” for more about CTI.)
The Future Is Here
While we are nowhere near Blade Runner proportions of airspace technology advancement, we are nonetheless at a pivotal moment in history that is setting the stage for a future world limited only by ambition and imagination. Whether it’s supporting a cargo resupply mission with a 20-ton space exploration vehicle, a family photo shoot with a 20-ounce recreational drone, or an autonomous commuter flight with a 20-passenger eVTOL, today’s NAS must be nimble enough to accommodate the growing diversity and volume of new entrants while being mindful of more traditional users. It’s not an easy task. But with the proper foresight, planning, and collaboration, the FAA will be well positioned to help usher in an entirely new era of safety and innovation in the NAS.
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Tom Hoffmann is the managing editor of FAA Safety Briefing. He is a commercial pilot and holds an A&P certificate.