Drones: A Story of Revolution and Evolution

Former Administrator, Michael Huerta (January 09, 2013–January 05, 2018)

Good morning everyone, and thank you for joining us here today.  I hope you had a great holiday, and I want to wish you all a very Happy New Year.

For 50 years, the Consumer Electronics Show has been the place where technology meets everyday life. In the past, that wouldn’t be a place where you’d expect to meet someone from the FAA.

But, with its eager embrace of drone technology, CES has soared into the frontier of aviation. And that means this is exactly where we need to be.

We have a whole FAA team staffing a booth down in the drone marketplace. They’re available to answer questions and get any feedback that attendees have to offer. I encourage you all to stop by for a visit.

For me personally, this is my second straight year visiting CES. And I have to tell you, I find the array of products on display to be just as spectacular as I did a year ago. Maybe even more so.

There is cutting-edge innovation all around us: Artificial intelligence. Virtual reality. Wearables. Digital imaging. And, of course, drones.

Since my last visit here, the story of drones has continued to be a story of revolution and evolution.

Revolution in the technology and how it’s being used. And evolution in the way we, the FAA, are approaching integrating this new entrant into the National Airspace System.

Our challenge is to find the right balance where safety and innovation co-exist on relatively equal planes. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say we have accomplished more toward this goal in the past year than we did in all previous years combined.

We worked with industry to establish the first set of comprehensive rules for flying small unmanned aircraft.

We established a Drone Advisory Committee and held our first annual unmanned aircraft symposium.

We’re researching everything from how to detect rogue drones to managing future drone traffic.

And we’re redesigning our website to make it more user-friendly for consumers.

With so many people channeling so much energy toward innovation, it’s hard to predict what the next great technological breakthrough in the drone field will be. But one thing is certain: our challenges are only going to get more complicated.

The sheer number of drones entering our airspace is a case in point. Just like last year, drones were one of the hottest gift items this past holiday season. 

But unlike a lot of holiday gifts, this one is clearly not a fad.

Indeed, our latest aerospace forecast estimates that there could be as many as 7 million drones sold in the United States by 2020. That’s about 2 ½ times the population of the state of Nevada. 

And the pace of change is breathtaking. It seems like someone is coming up with a new way to use drones every day.

Just this week, the city of Henderson and the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems broke ground on a new drone testing range located near Nevada State College.    

With both technology and innovation blazing ahead at warp speed, we know that as regulators, we have to lean forward. We have to approach our challenges with the same kind of creativity and open-mindedness that is fueling the drone revolution.

We also know that for us to be successful, we cannot dictate from above. We must work in close collaboration and partnership with the industry and those who fly unmanned aircraft for both recreation and commercial purposes.

So instead of telling the drone industry and drone operators what they can’t do, we’re helping them do what they want to do – while ensuring they operate safely.

That’s the approach we took with the small unmanned aircraft rule.

The rule, which took effect in August, enables people to fly drones for non-hobby purposes without getting specific authorization from the FAA – provided they operate within certain parameters.

As long as the operator earns a Remote Pilot Certificate, he or she can fly a registered drone weighing less than 55 pounds, during the daytime, up to 400 feet above ground level in uncontrolled airspace.

With the FAA’s permission, drone operators can fly in controlled airspace. And drone operators seeking to conduct expanded operations – at night time, over people, or beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight – can request a waiver.

In the four months since this rule went into effect, more than 30,000 people have started the Remote Pilot Application process. About 16,000 have taken the Remote Pilot Knowledge Exam, and almost 90 percent have passed. 

The next step in this evolution is to allow small unmanned aircraft to be flown over people under specific circumstances.

As many of you know, we’ve been working diligently on a proposed rule to allow just that, building on the foundation from the advisory rulemaking committee we convened last spring.

Allowing unmanned aircraft to fly over people raises safety questions because of the risk of injury to those underneath in the event of a failure.

It also raises security issues. As drone flights over people become more and more commonplace, imagine the challenge of a local police officer at a parade trying to determine which drones are properly there to photograph the festivities – and which may be operated by individuals with more sinister purposes.

The process of working with our interagency partners to reconcile these challenges is taking time. In addition, meetings conducted with industry stakeholders as part of the rulemaking process have raised a number of issues.

But you have my steadfast commitment to doing all I can to advance this effort. And we will be looking to our industry partners to develop more ingenious ways to ensure drones can fly over people without sacrificing safety or security.

And further down the road, we’re going to implement rules that will allow routine unmanned aircraft operations beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight.

This need to involve all stakeholders in framing challenges and finding solutions drove a pair of important new initiatives last year.

One was the formation of the Drone Advisory Committee, or DAC for short. The other was our decision to hold an annual unmanned aircraft symposium.

We formed the DAC last summer. It’s chaired by Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, and its members include representatives from the industry, government, labor and academia.

This allows us to look at drone use from every angle, while considering the different viewpoints and needs of this diverse community.

The group held its first meeting in September, and they’ve started work on helping us determine two important things:

  • What the highest-priority UAS operations are and how industry can gain access to the airspace to conduct these operations.
  • And identifying the roles and responsibilities of drone operators, manufacturers, and federal, state, and local officials related to drone use in populated areas.

The DAC’s next meeting will be held here in Nevada later this month – up north in Reno.

A number of our DAC members will also be participating in the second annual unmanned aircraft symposium in the Washington, DC, area in March. The symposium is really the ultimate exercise in democracy. Anyone who registers has the opportunity to talk face-to-face with federal regulators and industry representatives about regulations, research and integration initiatives.

These kinds of frank conversations are critical as we begin to tackle the bigger challenges that integration poses. And they’re helping to inform the work that the DAC undertakes.

During the upcoming symposium, these conversations will touch on the intersection of privacy and preemption. The importance of harmonizing global regulations so they’re the same if you’re flying in London or Long Island.

And they’ll also touch on the array of new safety and security risks associated with this pioneering form of aviation.

These risks include users who do not understand what it means to fly safely. People who don’t think they should be regulated and are determined to operate as they please. And actual bad actors, such as criminals and terrorists, who seek to use unmanned aircraft for malicious purposes.

Just as there’s a broad range of risks, so too is there a broad range of potential tools to address these risks.

One of our most important tools is education. And one of our most important education initiatives is the drone registry that we implemented just before Christmas 2015.

In the past year, more than 670,000 drone users have registered aircraft – including more than 37,000 during the last two weeks of December. All of these people have received our important safety messages that are part of the registration process.  

And our B4UFLY app alerts operators to airspace restrictions or requirements in effect in the areas where they want to fly.  

While education will always be a fundamental underpinning of safety, sometimes it is not enough.

For example, despite our education efforts, we’re seeing an increasing number of drone-sighting reports from pilots. We had about 1,800 in 2016, compared to about 1,200 the year before.

So we’re working closely with other government agencies and some of our Pathfinder Partners on a drone-detection security effort.

This involves testing technologies designed to detect unauthorized drone operations near airports and other critical infrastructure, or in unauthorized airspace.

We’ve evaluated some of these technologies around airports in New York, Atlantic City and Denver, and will be doing additional research at Dallas-Fort Worth later this year.  

We will use the data and findings from these evaluations to draft recommendations for standards. These standards will help inform airport operators nationwide who are considering installing drone-detection systems.

One of the many things we have learned during the past few years is that when it comes to drones, the future can become the present in the blink of an eye. With this in mind, we have to figure out how to manage drone traffic in airspace that is shared with manned aircraft.

Toward that end, we’re working with NASA to develop a concept for an unmanned aircraft traffic management system – an effort called UTM.

At the unmanned aircraft test site here in Nevada, the University of Nevada-Reno is helping NASA conduct tests to support this effort.  

This past October, they flew – and tracked – five drones at the same time beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight from Reno-Stead Airport. Each drone accomplished a separate simulated task, including looking for a lost hiker, covering a sporting event, monitoring wildlife and surveying environmental hazards.

Tests like these will help build the foundation for managing much greater amounts of drone traffic in the coming years.

In all of the work we’re doing, we are not forgetting about the needs of the individual consumer. We’re designing a common web portal that will act as one-stop-shop for all unmanned aircraft interactions with the FAA.

It will allow drone owners and operators to register their aircraft, apply for an airspace authorization or waiver, file an accident report and keep abreast of the latest FAA news and announcements about unmanned aircraft.

It will be designed for desktops, laptops, tablets and phones, and will serve as the platform for future communication with the FAA as unmanned aircraft rules and regulations evolve.

The progress that we have made during the past year would have seemed unimaginable not long ago.

It’s a great start, but it’s just the beginning.

We know there are many important issues yet to be addressed. And we know we can’t do it alone.

We will always need the input and expertise of all of our stakeholders, so we can craft the right kinds of policies and solutions to the challenges before us.

CES will continue to be a valuable forum, where we can give and take information, as we work our way down this path.

Thank you for joining us here today and being part of this journey.