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Speech – "ATCA Conference Keynote Address"

"ATCA Conference Keynote Address"
Michael Huerta, National Harbor, MD
October 19, 2016

ATCA Conference

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Pete. It’s great to be here at ATCA. These conferences are always a great place to catch a broad cross-section of the industry and to see some of the latest technologies being showcased.

But you know, I sometimes wonder about what’s NOT being showcased. 

In other words, what’s still being conceptualized that we might see in the coming years? 

What advanced projects are under development that could foster the next set of innovations for aviation?

I’m reminded of Lockheed Martin Co.’s Skunk Works, which many of you know something about. The Skunk is the company’s official advanced project unit that started during World War II.

Or so we’re told that’s when it started. After all, it was pretty secret.

The Skunk Works is where they came up with the designs for famous aircraft such as the U-2, SR-71 Blackbird, and the F-22 Raptor.

Skunk Works engineers were successful because they had the freedom to be creative and to pursue futuristic ideas. Many times, they started a project before the contract was even awarded. There was just a request from the customer, followed by a handshake.

The idea was that with less bureaucratic red tape, they could create an environment where innovation could thrive.  And thrive it did!

In fact, in 1943, the Skunk Works designed and produced the first American jet fighter, and it was completed in only 143 days—a week before the deadline. 

Today, the term “skunk works” is a widely used nickname in many sectors of industry.

Like Lockheed’s real unit, the term refers to that group within an organization that, to put it simply, is working on a lot of cool stuff—stuff that has the potential to change our lives.

So I wonder what projects are being developed in all of the skunk works-like groups that exist across America, and what we’ll see coming out of them in the future.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this job, it’s this:  the future is a lot closer than most people think it is.  Aviation is making technological leaps forward that are making a difference today.

One thing is clear – industry is moving at the speed of innovation.  We can’t afford to move at the traditional speed of government. 

And that’s not just a call for us at the FAA. It’s a call for all of us – as an aviation community. Because so much of what the FAA does now is in collaboration with all of you. 

Our collective success is a function of how well we can work together, and how nimble and flexible we can be, in this rapidly changing time. 

I don’t think there is a better example of changing times than what we’re seeing with drones. They’re being used in so many industries like filmmaking, agriculture, search and rescue operations, inspections of rail tracks and pipelines, and many others.

The FAA’s Small UAS rule went into effect in late August. And within six weeks, about 19,000 people had applications either completed, or in process, for their Remote Pilot Certificate.

And one forecast estimates that there could be as many as 7 million drones sold in the United States by 2020.  That’s about 1 million more than the population here in the state of Maryland.      

We are only beginning to see some of the ingenious uses of new and miniaturized technologies developed for drones.

Moreover, they’re thinking the product life cycle for drones might be a mere 4-6 months. That’s how fast things are changing.

But this new industry is not without its growing pains.

Safely integrating drones into a system that already includes everything from crop dusters to commercial rockets is a big challenge.

At last year’s convention, you may remember me talking about the FAA’s work to set up a drone registry. 

Secretary Foxx had asked us to set it up before Christmas, because we knew a lot of people were going to get drones in their stocking.

We only had two months, which was a pretty ambitious timetable. I heard from a number of people who thought we’d made a promise we couldn’t keep.

But we got to work. We weren’t going to let traditional processes or assumptions determine what we were capable of. We had to think outside the box. 

We took advice from experts in the aviation and technology industries.

We held daily meetings between employees at every level of the agency. This helped us to improve coordination and troubleshoot issues more efficiently.

We succeeded in getting the drone registry up and running before Christmas. And in the ten months since then, more than 576,000 UAS users have registered. This far exceeds the nearly 320,000 manned aircraft we have registered. And it took us 100 years to reach that number! 

The success of the drone registry is a testament to how much can be achieved when government and industry work together.

Now is not the time to get comfortable, because we expect this industry to evolve rapidly. Today, we’re talking about small-sized UAS operating within the pilot’s visual line of sight.

In the months and years ahead, we’ll be transitioning to larger UAS, flying over populated areas, and traveling beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight.

Our goal is that any sized drone can operate safely in virtually every type of airspace. We have to ensure the safety of traditional aircraft, and ensure the safety of people and property on the ground.

We’re making several efforts here. We’re looking at research being conducted by Assure, the FAA’s UAS Center of Excellence, which includes more than 20 universities.

We will also be watching the progress of the FAA-NASA UAS Traffic Management initiative. How can we use emerging technologies to help solve potential airspace conflicts in such a way that the aircraft can predict and avoid a problem long before the operator sees it?

I’ll tell a little story on us here.

A few days ago, as part of our agency wide Combined Federal Campaign to raise money from workers for worthwhile charities, the FAA’s Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City held an agency fair to highlight some of the things we do at the center.

One of the employees had proposed conducting a recreational drone flight at the center to highlight our UAS work.

Well, the aeronautical center is on the grounds of Will Rogers World Airport, which means it’s clearly inside the magic five-mile circle.

The employee did everything right to obtain the necessary approvals – including earning his Part 107 pilot certificate!

But because of built-in geo-fencing software, the drone wouldn’t even leave the ground unless the employee entered a special code from the manufacturer.

Thanks to the industry, this software is on tens of thousands of drones, providing one more defense against an unwanted conflict.

As we move forward, we’ll be working closely with industry experts and stakeholders to mutually solve challenges like this.

Last month, the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee, or DAC, held its first meeting.   

The DAC includes representatives from the technology and aviation industries, labor organizations, and state and local governments. It will help us prioritize our unmanned aircraft integration activities, including the development of future regulations and policies.

Now, we didn’t start from scratch when we came up with the idea for the DAC. It’s closely modeled after our NextGen Advisory Committee – another collaboration with industry that has been essential to the FAA’s work modernizing our air traffic system.

One thing that’s abundantly clear is that you need buy-in from a wide variety of stakeholders if you want to get a big project like NextGen right.

I know Teri Bristol gave you an excellent recap of how we are hitting all of the major milestones with NextGen. What I’d like to do is highlight how we’ve been successful. And it’s been because of this buy-in.

Let me give you an example.

As many of you know, Data Communications, or Data Comm, is a NextGen technology that allows air traffic controllers and pilots to exchange information using digital data exchange, in addition to voice communications.

When we started working on Data Comm several years ago, one of our first priorities was to engage with stakeholders. We wanted them to see the benefits, and we wanted their input.

Ultimately, pilots and controllers have to want to use it. They have to buy in.

We started off by conducting trials at Newark and Memphis International Airports to test equipment and develop flight deck and tower procedures. And we worked closely with partners like United Airlines, FedEx, and UPS to measure the fuel and time savings Data Comm could provide.

The industry immediately started to see the benefit. 

In fact, our airline partners on the NextGen Advisory Committee asked us to make Data Comm a priority so they could take advantage of its capabilities more quickly and in more locations.

And we listened. We initially envisioned rolling it out in three years. But we took what we learned from the trials, and accelerated the plan.

At the start of the year, Data Comm was operational at five airports.

Today, it’s up and running at 48 air traffic control towers nationwide. The program is two years ahead of schedule. 

But NextGen is not without its challenges.

Performance Based Navigation has certainly made flights more efficient, which saves money and reduces pollution. And while the more precise navigation paths expose fewer people to noise, it can potentially concentrate noise on a smaller geographical area directly beneath those flight paths.

As a result, we’ve seen an increasing level of public debate, political interest, and even litigation.

The FAA has stepped up its public engagement across the United States in response to these trends. It’s an effort we believe in. Because we need to make sure that all voices are heard when we are doing something that affects a community. 

Truly engaging the community may mean more time spent on a project upfront, but we believe the savings on the back end and our ability to use PBN to make things better for people are well worth it.

To support this effort, we recently named an ATO Community Involvement Manager. Her name is Julie Marks, and she will help us engage with citizens. We want to understand their concerns, so we can consider ways to address them.

For instance, we can try to place flight routes over less populated areas, where possible, or there may be an ability to have a steeper climb that reduces the noise footprint.

We’ve talked about what we called the “80% solution.”

If we can get an 80% improvement in flight operation efficiency, we’ll take it instead of pushing for a higher percentage of efficiency with a resulting cost of greater noise impact. 

But the FAA can’t solve this problem alone. All aviation stakeholders, from local airport authorities to the airlines, must take an ownership stake on noise issues.

We have to continue to address these issues, more creatively, more flexibly and more collaboratively than ever before.

We cannot be shackled by past processes that may no longer make sense, or are simply too inefficient to keep up with rapidly changing conditions.

The pace of change is only going to keep accelerating. That means we need to get comfortable with always being a little uncomfortable.

In the skunk works labs of America, great new products are being developed. Things with the potential to change our lives—things that can make aviation even safer, more efficient and more environmentally friendly.

We at the FAA, along with the aviation community, must match their speed. We have to tackle our mission with ingenuity and urgency.

Our ability to do that will determine our success in the 21st century.

Thank you.