FAA Administrator Steve Dickson: Episode III Keynote

Former Administrator Stephen M. Dickson (August 12, 2019 - March 31, 2022)

Thanks Erik, for that introduction, and welcome everyone to the FAAs sixth annual UAS Symposium.  Since this years Symposium is fully virtual again, we decided to stick with the Remotely Piloted Edition” moniker, and were looking forward to presenting Episode 3 over the next two days and Episode 4 in September.

The top level theme for this years event is Above and Beyond,” and Im proud to say that the FAA, with your help, has definitely gone Above and Beyond since we last met in August.

Even in the midst of a global pandemic, we finalized the ops over people and at night rule and the remote ID rule, and were using these advances and capabilities to move full speed ahead into the Beyond Visual Line of Sight realm and the promise of UTM and AAM. Now, while I may not be a drone pilot—yet—I know my acronyms. They tell me thats half the battle!

But seriously, weve made a great deal of progress since Episode 2 last August, when the Symposiums theme was—Drones: Here for Good.

Ten months later, drones are still here for good—we currently have nearly 900,000 registered, and were forecasting more than two million commercial and recreational drones flying in the National Airspace System by 2024.

And from what we gather from industry and from the press, drones are still doing good for civilization.  Here are a few quick examples:

….A missing woman located by Virginia police using a drone with thermal imaging last December; 

….the Savannah River National Laboratory monitoring a nuclear waste site with a fleet of drones, and winning a prestigious Department of Energy award for it….

….Alameda County, California, drones are used to create 360 degree images of fire-devastated areas so residents can assess damage to their property without having to return to the dangerous area

And package delivery growth continues, too. We saw Amazon Prime Air, last September, become the third FAA-certified air carrier for drone package deliveries, joining Wing and UPS Flight Forward. And just last month [May], the largest retailer in the world—Walmart—partnered with a drone operator to explore how they can deliver goods by drone in North Carolina under the part 107 rules. Others are waiting in the wings, so to speak.

This is what progress looks like, and trust me there is more coming.

I want to focus on how the FAA is helping the drone sector move Above and Beyond with the new performance-based regulations and research and education initiatives that lean into the future.

Lets start with the Small UAS Operations over People rule that we finalized in January and went live in April.

First off, dont let the name fool you—the ops over people rule includes a lot more than ops over people, for example night operations and flights over moving vehicles. Weve allowed these types of operations before, but always on a case by case basis through waivers. Now, theres no need for a waiver, providing the pilot and the drone meet all the requirements.

For routine night ops, the drone has to be equipped with anti-collision lights, similar to traditional, manned aircraft, and the pilot must complete the new night training requirement and receive the proper airspace authorizations.

We expect 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, and thats a nice segue to the Remote ID rule.

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 a 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.  

There are 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.

Now, that does not mean that Phil Mickelson could have taken out his smartphone and found out who was operating the TV camera drone that he says was blocking his 4th hole shot to the green at the PGA Championship a few weeks ago. Even Phil doesnt have that kind of pull. What it does mean, for example, is that by coordinating with the FAA, appropriate law enforcement entities can identify and stop incidents like drones operated illegally around wildfires where theyve sometimes prevented traditional aviation firefighting activities.

Thats one purpose, but the bigger picture is that Remote ID is a necessary ingredient for Beyond Visual Line of Sight operations, which, as you know, are key to unleashing the true potential of drones and other highly autonomous vehicles.

Right now, there are several companies using limited Beyond Visual Line of Sight under existing regulations, with waivers, to conduct routine surveillance, inspection and maintenance tasks for the railroad, electric, oil and gas, and communications industries.

Were learning a great deal from this work, but the operations are not scalable or economically viable in the mid- to long-term under todays rules.

So today, I’m pleased to announce 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.

I think we can all agree this is a big step forward, and it will help pave the way for routine package delivery, infrastructure inspection, and other more complex drone operations beyond the visual line-of-sight of the remote pilot.

We’re also investing in research and partner programs like BEYOND, which will help us create performance-based, technology-agnostic rules.

BEYOND started last year where the Integration Pilot Program left off. Were 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 todays rules.

Theres 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.

Were also studying the risks of drones, including ground and airborne collision severity studies, engine ingestion testing, and UAS detection, which we are testing at five airports over the next two years.

As you know, the FAA is not only a regulator, but were also an air navigation services provider; so of course were heavily invested in making sure the drone ecosystem will fit hand-in-glove with our air traffic control system.

Our answer is UTM, which, as you know, is a foundational capability needed to unlock the full potential of this sector. Based on the work weve done with NASA, were planning a regulatory framework based on a federated approach that will allow airspace users to cooperatively manage their operations where the FAA does not actively provide separation services.

Were also continuing to work with our global partners to develop a UTM architecture. BUT, we ultimately want YOU, industry, to take ownership. And when I see all the amazing innovation from private industry shaping the aerospace industry right now, Im confident that UTM will be no different.

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. Weve all seen the prototypes, and its 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 is taking a systems approach, where our executives have established an internal AAM Integration Executive Council to coordinate all our activities in five areas—aircraft, airspace, operations, infrastructure and community.

Were 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.

As Ive said previously, we have several AAM aircraft in the aircraft certification process right now, and several companies anticipate flying initial AAM operations around 2024. Ill also repeat that the FAA has no current plans to update regulations for AAM operations—the existing rules are flexible enough to accommodate any potential near-term operations.

So climbing back up to the 60,000 foot level, I can say with confidence that the State of the State for drones here in Episode 3 is healthy and heading in the right direction. We want you to stay with us on the journey.

For our global partners, we want to share best practices for harmonizing the skies.

For industry and the research community, were looking to you to help make compliance easier as we roll out the remote ID and operations over people rules.

For Public Safety & Law Enforcement, were counting on you to enforce the rules once theyre effective.

To our commercial drone pilots, we know youre the impetus for change. We know you see the new possibilities for UAS in your business, and that you want to see tomorrows drones today.

We hear you, and we want you to know we are here to help coordinate these many—and oftentimes competing—demands. You have my word that we are laser-focused on next steps, supporting technologies and policies that enable routine Beyond Visual Line of Sight operations.

To our recreational pilots – I saved the best for last. We appreciate your patience and flexibility as we work to safely introduce drones into the airspace.

We are in the final stages of selecting the Test Administrators for The Recreational UAS Safety Test. Deployment of the test will be announced soon on our website – FAA.gov.

The test will provide recreational pilots with safety training tips, best practices, and educational resources. Perhaps more importantly, I see it as a way to bring more recreational pilots into the pilot family and aviation safety culture so that we can all continue to learn and grow, together. Deployment of the test will be announced on our website.

I like to say that Safety is a journey, not a destination, and that journey requires all of us to continually learn and grow as aviators. Thats how we—all of us here—keep it safe.

The FAA is here to help, and well continue to work together as a community to go above and beyond and see to it that drones remain here for good.

Thanks again for the invitation to speak, and I look forward to exploring these topics a bit more with Erik and Keely here for the next 10 minutes or so.