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Speech – "Safety Propels Innovation—Innovation Propels Progress"

"Safety Propels Innovation—Innovation Propels Progress"
Stephen M. Dickson, Virtual
August 18, 2020

UAS Symposium Episode 2


Thank you, Erik, for that introduction, and thanks to your entire team and to AUVSI for holding this landmark event—not once, but twice. Today in Episode 2, we’ll explore public safety topics, including the Integration Pilot Program and what we’ve learned, UAS security, community concerns, how to conduct safer missions, and a variety of other topics meant to help this global community succeed and grow. 

As you know, the overarching theme for both episodes is Drones: Here for Good. Meaning, they’re here to stay, and, more importantly, they are proving to be beneficial for society.

When we take the energy and creativity of a newfound industry, not constrained by traditional aviation wisdom, and apply it to problems and opportunities in the public realm, the sky is the limit for what we might accomplish.

But that’s only part of the equation.

In order to be successful, we must balance these bold new ideas with tried and true safety considerations. That’s our role at the FAA: We make sure safety propels innovation, so that innovation can propel progress. 

And if you want to see innovation propelling progress in the drone sector, you have to look no farther than the Department of Transportation’s Integration Pilot Program.

Consider some of the things we’ve accomplished to date with the IPP:

In the medical field, UPS Flight Forward and Matternet, as part of the North Carolina DOT IPP team, have dramatically reduced delivery times for medical samples as part of their routine UAS medical package deliveries over the WakeMed medical campus in Raleigh, North Carolina.

It was through the IPP that UPS, along with Wing Aviation, earned the distinction of becoming America’s first FAA-certified air carrier operators for UAS package deliveries.

In the public service sector, State Farm, a member of the Virginia IPP team, operated over people and beyond visual line of sight—also known as BVLOS—to conduct damage assessments following Hurricanes Florence and Michael. These successful operations led to a nationwide waiver that also covers pre-damage assessments.

The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma reaped a direct economic benefit by using drones to conduct inspections of pecan trees and was able to determine that seemingly diseased trees had healthy crops in their upper levels. They improved the crop yield for those trees by 200 percent.

Later this afternoon, you’ll hear from Chief Roxana Kennedy of the Chula Vista Police Department, part of the San Diego IPP team. Chief Kennedy’s department is successfully using drones to enhance the safety of its police officers and the community by giving first responders an early assessment when they respond to 911 calls.

For the first 1,000 missions, average on-scene response time was reduced from 6 minutes to 2.2 minutes for priority calls. The responding drones also provided information so dispatchers could determine the number of units to deploy, pinpoint the location of suspects’ discarded firearms, and follow vehicles under pursuit throughout the city.

At the Memphis Airport, FedEx has enhanced the efficiency and safety of its aircraft inspection process by replacing manual visual inspections by maintenance technicians with drone inspections. Using drones reduced aircraft inspection times from three hours to 20 minutes, and improved employee safety and data collection.

These are just a few examples, but perhaps more telling of how innovation, properly applied, can help people, is the speed with which our government, industry, and academia IPP teams pivoted to help out during the ongoing COVID-19 global health emergency.

In many cases, we’ve enabled drone use for COVID-19 within our existing regulations and emergency procedures, as well as through special approvals—some in less than an hour.

Wing Aviation used its Part 135 status to increase its partnerships with local businesses in Christiansburg, VA, to significantly increase contactless deliveries. As I mentioned in Episode 1, they even delivered library books!

Like Wing, UPS Flight Forward leveraged its ability to operate under Part 135 by providing prescription deliveries to a retirement community in Florida and conducting medical deliveries near Charlotte, NC.

Companies operating under Part 107 also joined the fight. For example, Flytrex and Zipline used their IPP experience to support COVID response efforts in North Carolina.

As you can see, there’s no shortage of innovation when it comes to drones. But to be successful in an industry where safety is the ultimate arbitrator, innovators must do the right thing when it comes to safety. The FAA is here to help. As I said earlier, we make sure safety propels innovation.

This is key to our future in drones and Advanced Air Mobility, or AAM. It speaks to how we must balance the promised benefits of new technologies with the potential safety impacts to our National Airspace System as we integrate these operations.

It’s the reason why we issued the proposed Remote Identification rule, and why we will finalize it by year’s end.

It’s the reason we’ve taken a proactive role in AAM, working with industry stakeholders to identify challenges, gaps, and areas for potential harmonization. We have engaged in two AAM-focused Executive Roundtables, collaborating with FAA and NASA executives and industry leaders to discuss the challenges and strategic priorities.

At headquarters FAA, we are integrating AAM into our planning efforts, with a focus on five pillars of activity: aircraft, airspace, operations, infrastructure, and community.

We’re also part of the NASA National Campaign, formerly known as the Urban Air Mobility Grand Challenge, where the idea is to demonstrate the realm of what’s possible for passenger and cargo transportation using these unconventional aircraft and traffic management methods.

To make sure safety propels drone innovation, we’ve been working with industry for almost four years on a Partnership for Safety Program initiative, or PSP, to address complex integration issues.

This team works across the FAA to evaluate and approve complex UAS operations that will benefit industry and inform our rulemaking process.

For example, the PSP team leveraged expertise in engineering, operations, maintenance, and safety, to help Xcel Energy to conduct system-wide BVLOS operations over its electric transmission system using a Certificate of Waiver.

This change in operations enabled the company to reduce risk to its employees by limiting exposure to high voltage currents, and flight and ground hazards, while greatly increasing the accuracy and frequency of inspections over 2,268 miles of electrical infrastructure spanning eight states.

Of course, you can’t talk about BVLOS without a nod to the trailblazer—BNSF Railway, which has completed enough beyond visual line of sight operations to more than circumnavigate the globe at the equator.

Another PSP partner, Florida Power and Light, estimates it can save more than $15 million over the next four years by replacing vehicles with drones to conduct routine transmission and distribution power line inspections.

There is also work being done to advance the use of cellular technology for command and control with Verizon/Skyward and a First Responder App, developed by GE AiRXOS. The app provides on-scene commanders the ability to mark the area where they are conducting UAS operations.

In the public safety arena, we worked with various associations to develop what’s called Tactical Beyond Visual Line of Sight, an operational mode that allows limited out of sight UAS operations in support of life saving efforts.

We created the Public Safety Small Drone Playbook, which is a resource guide for dealing with potentially unlawful UAS operations. We’ve sent out more than two thousand hard copies of the guide to public safety agencies, and several thousand copies have been downloaded from the FAA's website.

Internally to the FAA, we created a dedicated public safety liaison team that provides outreach through events, including webinars, videos, and digital media to support the public safety UAS mission.

All these activities are helping to inform rulemaking and national and international policies. That includes a new Safety Risk Management business process that ICAO included in its guidance for drone operations supporting humanitarian aid and emergency response for countries around the world to leverage.

In addition to reaching out across physical borders, I’m here to announce that we are also bridging the language barriers that are preventing the FAA from communicating with a growing number of people who are interested in drones. Communication is key—the safety of everyone in the NAS hinges upon UAS operators understanding the rules of the sky.

According to the Census Bureau, approximately 25.6 million individuals living in the United States are considered limited English proficient, or L-E-P, and the population of L-E-P individuals—defined as those having a limited ability to read, write, speak, or understand English—continues to grow. How many are recreational drone flyers, or would like to be? 

That’s the reason we’ve started the UAS L-E-P Pilot Project. We’re translating select website content into Spanish, focusing on recreational flyers. This project will help us further extend outreach to the largest language community of L-E-P persons and provide access to basic safety information. The translated content will be available on our website and comes out just ahead of Hispanic Heritage Month, which starts in mid-September.

Community engagement will help us ensure that this outreach campaign has a measurable effect on improving safety for recreational flyers.

Organizations that have significant contact with L-E-P persons, such as local law enforcement, FSDOs, schools, and community-based groups can be very helpful in linking them to this information on our website.

We’ll monitor the effectiveness of our outreach through our social media and website engagement, as well as engagement with our UAS Support Center.

As a society, we’re especially fond of innovation and technology. Drones are no exception. But the staying power of a new entrant will depend on how the public perceives that entrant, and for the aviation industry, it’s critically important that the public sees that entrant is safe. So how is the drone industry doing so far?

According to our analysis of daily media reports about drones over the past six months, we estimate that roughly half of the stories are positive, 35 percent are neutral, and 15 percent are negative. I’d say that’s a pretty good ratio for any new development.

On many days, the news highlights extraordinary developments and “firsts” that support the theme of this conference. But on days like August 4th, there’s not much positive, or even neutral on the pages. That’s the day one careless operator used a drone to make a new kind of “first” – the first “drone delay” of a major league baseball game.

The news buzz a few weeks earlier, on June 29, was about an incident that could have led to much worse consequences. That’s the day the NTSB concluded that a news copter in Los Angeles had likely collided with a drone back in December 2019.

As with the baseball stadium prank, no one was injured, but these incidents are concrete reminders to us that the public at large does not differentiate between the professionals and the pranksters when it comes to safety.

That’s part of the reason that all of us here have worked so hard to communicate and educate and must continue to do so, and we must continue collaborating with events like this, to help get the word out, to cross geographic and language divides… so that safety can propel innovation, and innovation can propel progress. Then, and only then, will we be assured that drones will be….here for good.

Thank you for inviting me and I wish you an excellent Episode 2.

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