Michael Huerta, Las Vegas, NV
September 6, 2017
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Thank you, Ted, for that introduction. And good morning everyone.
I’m delighted to be here in Las Vegas today. Welcome everyone to what I know will be an energizing and enlightening experience.
Whenever I speak at these conferences, I always marvel at the number of new faces I see among the many familiar faces. That’s certainly true of the crowd this morning.
Indeed, the very fact that you’re sitting here today speaks to the incredible transformative power of this industry.
Please take a moment to look around this packed room. Then consider this: Just three years ago, this conference didn’t even exist.
Last year, Ted told me that the number of people attending and exhibiting here at InterDrone was about 50 percent higher than the year before.
This year, those numbers have surged again, with attendees representing a total of 59 countries.
You know, when I began my tenure as FAA Administrator in January 2013, very few people would have envisioned that within a few years, drones would be the fastest growing field in aviation.
And few people would have envisioned that the FAA would be devoting so much of its energy and resources to this field.
But you only have to look at the recent flooding in Texas after Hurricane Harvey to see what a transformative role that drones are playing.
After the floodwaters had inundated homes, businesses, roadways and industries, a wide variety of agencies sought FAA authorization to fly drones in airspace covered by Temporary Flight Restrictions.
We recognized that we needed to move fast – faster than we have ever moved before.
So we basically made the decision that anyone with a legitimate reason to fly an unmanned aircraft would be able to do so. In most cases, we were able to approve individual operations within minutes of receiving a request.
By the end of last week, we had issued more than 70 authorizations covering a broad range of activities by local, state and federal agencies – and that number will continue to climb.
A railroad company used drones to survey damage to a rail line that cuts through Houston. Oil and energy companies flew drones to spot damage to their flooded infrastructure.
Unmanned aircraft helped a fire department and county emergency management officials check for damage to roads, bridges, underpasses and water treatment plants that could require immediate repair.
Meanwhile, cell tower companies flew them to assess damage to their towers and associated ground equipment and insurance companies began assessing damage to neighborhoods.
I could go on and on.
In many of these situations, unmanned aircraft were able to conduct low-level operations more efficiently – and more safely – than could have been done with manned aircraft.
Our ability to quickly authorize unmanned aircraft operations was especially critical because most local airports were either closed or dedicated to emergency relief flights, and the fuel supply was low.
So essentially, every drone that flew meant that a traditional aircraft was not putting an additional strain on an already fragile system.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the hurricane response will be looked back upon as a landmark in the evolution of drone usage in this country.
And I believe the drone industry itself deserves a lot of credit for enabling this to happen.
That’s because the pace of innovation in the drone industry is like nothing we have seen before. If people can dream up a new use for drones, they’re transforming it into reality.
A colleague of mine at the FAA got a first-hand look at this a few weeks ago. While vacationing on the Outer Banks in North Carolina, he witnessed a group of fishermen on the beach use a red quadcopter to carry a baited fish hook hundreds of yards out over the ocean before dropping it into the water.
While this might not be one of the more societally transformative uses of unmanned aircraft, it is a microcosm of the creativity that’s being applied to this new technology.
As an agency, we at the FAA realized very early on that we had to change our regulatory approach in order to safely integrate this new technology without stifling innovation.
We recognized that we needed to be more flexible and nimble than we had been in the past – and that we could not accomplish this monumental task on our own.
Now, managing the safe integration of drone technology into the world’s busiest and most complex airspace system is kind of like managing a massive and endless to-do list. Every time we scratch off an item, we add three more, it seems.
What’s unique about this to-do list is that it doesn’t belong to any one group. It isn’t our list, and it isn’t your list. It belongs to all stakeholders.
The FAA. The drone industry. Aviation groups. Public safety. Academia. Privacy advocates. To name just a few.
I’m pleased to say that we’ve have scratched some of the big-ticket items off our list.
That’s because we have approached integration in a spirit of flexibility, partnership and collaboration. We realize that progress necessarily entails compromise.
If you’ve heard me speak before, I might sound like a broken record when I talk about the importance of collaboration. But if it weren’t for everyone’s commitment to collaboration, and commitment to putting safety first, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
In fact, if the FAA had tried to go it alone, integration would already be a spectacular failure.
If the FAA had tried to go it alone, we wouldn’t have just celebrated the first anniversary of our Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule, which makes it a lot easier for businesses and public agencies to operate drones.
We wouldn’t have a Pathfinder Program, in which industry is helping research how to safely fly drones over people and beyond the operator’s line of sight.
We wouldn’t have a Drone Advisory Committee that’s tackling tough issues such as how to remotely identify and track unmanned aircraft and what role various players should have in crafting safety rules.
To be sure, there are some who say we are too flexible in our approach to integrating unmanned aircraft. That we should be placing more limits on how drones can be used.
And there are those who say we are not flexible enough. That we should be doing more to open up the skies.
That’s OK. Disagreement can be a good thing.
The tension between different interests and perspectives helps bring us all to the middle, creating the right balance that we’re striving to achieve.
One area where there is substantial debate is the issue of who should have a voice in regulating drone operations. Like many aspects of drone integration, this debate raises new and complex questions.
What roles should the federal, state and local governments play? How do we ensure that unmanned aircraft operations can occur with a minimum amount of disruption and interference, particularly over densely populated areas?
We issued preliminary guidance about this issue in 2015. But it’s continuing to get lots of attention from state and local governments throughout the country.
Legally, the Federal Aviation Administration has regulatory authority over all U.S. airspace. But successfully blending unmanned aircraft into busy airspace will require state, local, and tribal governments to build upon existing federal efforts to develop and enforce safety rules.
Not long ago, I had a conversation with the mayor of a major metropolitan city who summed up the challenge. “With traditional aviation, we know exactly where the airports are,” the mayor said. “But with drones, my entire city is an airport.”
His comments drive home the point that we need greater clarity as to what state and local governments would like to see, and what roles they would like to play.
Over the past several months, we have been working closely with the Drone Advisory Committee to tackle this and other pressing issues.
Meanwhile, we’re also working on two next steps that are key for truly unleashing the potential and power of this transformative industry. Those are allowing operations over people, and allowing operations beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight.
One of the main building blocks for safely enabling these new uses is remote identification and tracking of unmanned aircraft.
In March, we stood up an Aviation Rulemaking Committee to help develop the identification and tracking system we’re ultimately going to put in place. We tasked the committee with answering a number of tough questions.
What technology is available or needs to be created to identify and track unmanned aircraft in flight?
How can we work closely with law enforcement to ensure safe and secure operations?
And how can we smoothly incorporate this new system into the world’s most complex airspace?
Answering these questions will require making tough decisions and coming to a consensus. We gave the committee an aggressive timeline to get its work done, and we are expecting their final recommendations this month.
I can’t stress how important this work is.
While most players are figuring out how to use drones to benefit society, there are bad actors out there who want to use them for nefarious purposes.
A recent news report found that people have used drones more than a dozen times to fly contraband into federal prisons over the last five years.
Just last month, three men were arrested for allegedly using a drone to drop drugs and a cell phone into a prison in Ionia, Michigan.
And as we all know too well, there also are people out there who are simply ignorant of what flying safely means.
These are the folks who interfere with wildfire fighting operations. Who crash drones in crowded urban areas.
Who fly them near sports stadiums, and in the busy airspace around our nation’s airports.
We’re receiving an average of about 200 drone-sighting reports from pilots each month this year. That’s significantly higher than in both 2016 and 2015.
In fact, we’ve had a number of reports from pilots right around Las Vegas in just the past month – at altitudes of up to 6,000 feet. It’s concerning to me, and I know it’s concerning to you, too.
The work we’re asking the Drone Advisory Committee to undertake complements other work that’s already been done to evaluate technology that might be used to detect drones flying without authorization around airports and other critical infrastructure.
This spring, we completed the fifth and final field evaluation of potential drone detection systems, at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
We’re going to use the information we got from the evaluations to develop minimum performance standards for drone detection technology that might be deployed around airports here in the U.S.
Key players in this effort included our partners in the Pathfinder and unmanned aircraft test site programs, including the test site here in Nevada.
And the FAA’s Center of Excellence is researching the potential safety ramifications of what might happen if a drone hits a person on the ground.
A few moments ago, I mentioned that we just marked the one-year anniversary of our small unmanned aircraft rule, or Part 107. That happened at the end of last month, on August 29.
The rule really was a game changer, because it allows for routine public and commercial operations, without getting case-by-case FAA approvals – provided they are conducted within the parameters of the rule.
In the past year, people have registered more than 79,000 commercial aircraft. We have issued more than 59,000 remote pilot certificates, and 92 percent of the people who take the pilot certificate exam pass it.
The rule is also flexible – there’s that word again – because it enables people to get waivers to some of its provisions. And the waiver requests we’re receiving shed interesting light on what people want to do with this technology.
The bulk of the non-airspace waiver requests we’re getting are for flying at night. There’s also a significant number for flying over people or beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight.
To date, we’ve approved almost 1,000 waiver requests. We’ve also approved more than 7,000 authorizations and waivers to fly in controlled airspace.
More than 900 of these were for the highly controlled Class B airspace around major airports. Of course, these approvals come with restrictions ensuring the operations won’t pose a hazard to manned aircraft.
These are solid numbers, to be sure. But we want to streamline the process. So we’re taking steps to make it easier and faster to process Part 107 authorizations and waivers.
This spring, we began publishing downloadable facility maps that depict areas and altitudes near airports where unmanned aircraft can safely operate. These maps can help people tailor their waiver requests to have a higher chance of getting a quick approval.
By making it easier to fly, we’re not just helping support the economy and fuel innovation. We’re also making the system safer.
If people know that it isn’t a burden to play by the rules, they’re more likely to get all the certifications, authorizations and waivers that those rules require.
And in the process of fulfilling all the requirements, they’re educating themselves about what flying safely means.
That’s why we’re working so hard to spread our educational safety message as wide and far as possible.
This spring, the FAA began using the hashtag #DroneQuestion on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to answer drone-related questions from the public. If someone has a question, they can tweet it at @FAANews and we will get back to them within 24 hours.
We’re partnering with the National Interagency Fire Center on their “If you fly, we can’t” campaign, and with a number of private and governmental organizations on No Drone Zone campaigns.
One of our oldest, and most effective, educational partnerships is the Know Before You Fly program. A few short years ago, it began as an initiative among the FAA, Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and Academy of Model Aeronautics.
It now has almost 150 partners including drone manufacturers, law enforcement, aviation groups, retailers, labor organizations and academia, among others.
It underscores that the solution isn’t you, it isn’t us – it’s all of us working together. We all have skin in the game.
And I’m not just talking about the solution to educating people about safe operations.
You are all going to play an incredibly important in this process. Because technology can solve some of the most complex safety and security challenges we’re facing.
Your creativity and imagination can get it done more quickly and efficiently than we ever could through regulations alone. We’ll hand you the ball, but you have to figure out how to get it into the end zone.
At the turn of the last century, after a couple of bicycle mechanics named Orville and Wilbur made the first known powered airplane flight, some people dismissed aviation as a fad. They said it would never replace trains and ships as the primary modes of long-distance transportation.
Just over two years ago, a popular technology website ran a story under the headline, “Are drones a fad or here for good?” (The reporter’s conclusion was they’re here for good. I’m pretty sure he was correct.)
While drones are clearly here for good, the reality is that the industry is still in its infancy.
A century ago, people couldn’t foresee that clunky wood-and-fabric biplanes would morph into sleek aluminum jets capable of knifing through the air at supersonic speed. And today, we can’t possibly predict everything drones will be doing five or 10 years down the line.
In addition to playing critical roles in disaster response and relief, is it unrealistic to think that these aircraft will become routine household items?
Will suburban gardeners someday relax and sip iced tea (or maybe something stronger) while hummingbird-sized aircraft trim their backyard rose bushes as larger models wash and wax their cars?
In a decade or two – or maybe in just a couple of years – I’m sure many of us will look back and say, “Wow, who could have believed drones would be used for that?”
I’m also sure that as long as we continue to journey down this road together, with a laser-focus on safety and in a spirit of collaboration and inclusion, that we will succeed in meeting the challenges that we’ll face along the way.