FAA Administrator Dickson Speaks on Sharing the National Airspace With Drones

Speaking at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sixth annual drone symposium this June, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson stressed both the good and the bad aspects of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) operating in national airspace.

There are currently nearly 900,000 UAS registered in the United States, and the FAA is forecasting more than two million commercial and recreational drones flying in the National Airspace System by 2024.

They are being used to find missing people, protect and monitor critical infrastructure, deliver essential supplies, and assess fire damage. They are also used recreationally by an increasing number of people, making safety paramount in order to protect national airspace as well as citizens, vehicles, buildings and operations on the ground.

FAA’s Small UAS Operations over People rule was finalized in January and went live in April. Under the rule, both the pilot and the drone need to meet various requirements including training and authorizations, or the addition of anti-collision lights when flying at night. 

Dickson said he expects operations over people to begin in earnest over the next six to 18 months. “We created four operations categories with drone requirements that are proportional to the type of operation and the potential harm the drone could cause to people on the ground.”

Not surprisingly, drones flying over open air assemblies—for example over a festival, concert, or parade—will have to comply with remote identification requirements. Published in January, the Remote ID rule is a digital license plate that will pave the way for more advanced operations and full integration of drones into the National Airspace System. That means routine Beyond Visual Line of Sight and a boost for package delivery, particularly in congested low-altitude airspace as part of an unmanned traffic management (UTM) ecosystem.

“The bottom line for operators is this: If you fly a drone that requires registration, meaning it weighs more than 0.55 pounds, then you are required to fully comply with the rule by September 16, 2023,” said Dickson, who set out the three ways to comply: 

“Operate a drone manufactured with the technology; incorporate an external broadcast module; or fly without Remote ID within the bounds of what we call an FAA-recognized identification area, or FRIA (“free-ah”). FRIAs in many cases will be the traditional model airplane fields where hobbyists have gathered and safely flown for decades. Technically speaking, if you are not flying in a FRIA – the drone will have to broadcast its unique identifier, altitude, location, and information about its control station or departure point.”

At the virtual symposium, Dickson announced that the FAA is forming a new Aviation Rulemaking Committee, or ARC, to help the agency develop a regulatory path for routine Beyond Visual Line of Sight operations. This committee will consider the safety, security and environmental needs, as well as societal benefits, of these operations. Within six months, the committee will submit a recommendations report to the FAA.

The FAA is also investing in research and partner programs like BEYOND, which will help to create performance-based, technology-agnostic rules. 

“BEYOND started last year where the Integration Pilot Program left off,” explained Dickson. “We’re working with eight of the nine IPP participants and some new partners over the next 3-4 years to advance and expand the scope of repeatable and scalable Beyond Visual Line of Sight operations under today’s rules.

“There’s a great deal of additional research underway, in part through our government, industry, academic, and international partners. Topics of high interest and ongoing work include UTM, and passenger transport capabilities, including Urban Air Mobility.”

Of course, drones can also be used for nefarious purposes and also pose a safety risk when operated innocently, but unsafely. Dickson said the FAA is studying the risks, such as ground and airborne collision severity studies, engine ingestion testing, and looking at UAS detection which will be tested at five airports over the next two years.

Finally, the FAA Administrator challenged industry to work with emerging technologies to develop advanced air mobility (AAM) innovations.

“When you envision the types of aircraft moving through the skies under UTM, you not only think of Beyond Visual Line of Sight cargo delivery flights, but you naturally think about flying taxis, or more broadly speaking, Advanced Air Mobility, or AAM. We’ve all seen the prototypes, and it’s hard not to be excited by what we see.

“My role as FAA Administrator is to figure out how to introduce these emerging technologies while maintaining the unwavering safety commitment that the public has come to expect from the FAA. Finding this balance is especially challenging because AAM crosses so many domains—regulations, infrastructure, technology, operations, and societal perceptions.”

The FAA has established an internal AAM Integration Executive Council to coordinate its activities in five areas—aircraft, airspace, operations, infrastructure and community. The FAA is also working with NASA on the Advanced Air Mobility National Campaign, which is designed to help develop certification standards while promoting public confidence and education in the technology. As part of the campaign, NASA recently completed testing with a Bell Kiowa helicopter as a surrogate urban air mobility vehicle in a simulated congested urban environment.

“All of us—government, industry, and the public have a role to play as we develop consensus standards and a comprehensive risk picture of how and where AAM will operate,” Dickson concluded.

Read the full speech at the FAA

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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