FAA Deputy Administrator Daniel Elwell at InterDrone 2019

Former Deputy Administrator, Daniel K. Elwell (August 12, 2019–November 23, 2020)

As Prepared

Thank you, Mike (Pehel), for that kind introduction, and thank you InterDrone for inviting me to speak here again this year.

As you know, on August 12th Steve Dickson was sworn in as the 18th FAA Administrator, so I’m back to the Number 2 position on the team. That’s ok though. Like the old tag line for Avis rental cars, being Number 2 just means I try harder.

The truth is, I very much look forward to working with Administrator Dickson. Even though we spent large parts of our earlier careers as pilots for competing airlines – Steve at Delta, me at American—we have a lot in common. We both started out as Air Force pilots, in fact we both went to the Air Force Academy, and at the FAA we both have a laser focus on operationalizing the FAA’s agenda—and that includes your agenda.

Because of this, some higher-ups have referred to us as the Dynamic Duo. But please, don’t call me Robin. And definitely don’t call Steve Batman…

But what you can call us are UAS integration advocates, and I’m here to tell you why. 

You know it’s usually true that when summer heats up, life slows down. But in your line of business, this summer has been anything but sluggish. This summer has been all about action, the kind of action that suits the operators that come to InterDrone—construction, cinema, photography, inspection, agriculture, public safety, energy, surveying and mapping—the list goes on and on because you’re finding new ways to use drones every day.

We’re making big progress on real-world testing for how to safely and securely integrate drones into the National Airspace System, or NAS, and developing or delivering new rules to codify what we’re learning so that drones can become regular participants in NAS operations rather than special or waivered one-offs.  

At the same time, we’re heavily invested in educating today’s drone community, especially hobbyists, on what they can and can’t do. As you know, an uninformed recreational flier in the wrong place at the wrong time could ruin everyone’s day—recreational and commercial—by threatening manned aircraft or innocent bystanders. Since mid-April, the FAA has held seven drone webinars, three public safety seminars and two Facebook Live question and answer sessions that reached nearly 70,000 people, generating about 4,000 questions or comments. That’s a success story for outreach, but stay tuned—while 70,000 may seem like a lot, we’re just scratching the surface since we’ve already registered more than 1.4 million drones.

So let’s talk about some success stories for keeping the ball moving forward on integration.

Last month, we saw significant approvals and actions in North Dakota, Kansas and North Carolina, all part of the UAS Integration Pilot Program, or IPP, which Secretary Chao launched two years ago. Through the IPP, nine state, local and tribal governments across the U.S. are partnering with industry—the companies in this room—to develop UAS regulations, policy and guidance through practical applications. Perhaps more importantly they’ve become the match that is lighting a creative fire in the industry and in the public for what this novel new form of transportation might achieve.

North Dakota had two major IPP success stories in August. For one, Xcel Energy can now remotely inspect a portion of the power lines outside an operator’s visual range along a stretch of urban roads in Grand Forks. They can do this in both daytime and nighttime conditions under a one-year waiver the FAA issued to the North Plains UAS Test Site. As you might expect, there are caveats. While the operator is in a remote location, there is a person launching the drone at the remote site, and command and communication links limit the Beyond Visual Line of Sight, or BVLOS, distance to a few miles at the moment.

While Xcel has been using drones for several years in remote areas to inspect electric and natural gas infrastructure, this is the first time they’ve been approved for BVLOS flights within a city. I don’t have to tell this crowd the significance of the waiver—it’s the first time we’ve approved BVLOS operations without visual observers in an urban environment in a Part 107 waiver.

Xcel isn’t spending its money and time on a whim. The company says inspecting distribution lines with drones allows crews to get better details on our energy systems without having to put workers in the air with a more expensive helicopter or bucket truck. Drones also minimize the impact on neighborhoods and the environment by avoiding the use of large trucks typically needed for these inspections.

In Bismarck, North Dakota, we just issued a Part 107 waiver for the Highway Patrol and the Burleigh (Burlee) County Sheriff’s Office to operate drones over people, another advancement in operational capabilities.

As you can imagine, each waiver is unique, and each rests on the foundation of a successful safety case that the applicant made to the FAA. Included in a safety case are the location of the requested operations, the altitude, the reliability of the equipment, and in the case of operations over people, what injuries might be caused to a bystander if the drone falls out of the sky. Approvals may also be contingent on mitigations to reduce consequences of a failure.

The safety case for a Part 107 BVLOS waiver we just approved for the Kansas Department of Transportation has several layers. The flights will inspect power lines along a nine-mile route in rural Kansas over the next few months. The approval is based on a number of safety nets: The drones will operate next to manmade structures—power lines in this case—where they are much less likely to be sharing the airspace with manned aircraft and they will use an onboard detect-and-avoid system. The operators in the ground control system will also have access to additional traffic data.

Now let’s talk about a waiver we issued in mid-August involving drones flying over moving vehicles in North Carolina. Drone maker Flytrex, working with drone services company, Causey Aviation Unmanned Inc, will use the approval to fly food from a distribution center, across a highway, to customers at a sports and recreation park. This is part of an IPP with the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

Their safety case for flying over the vehicles included the demonstrated reliability of the selected drone, and as a potential mitigation for failures, Flytrex’s self-triggered parachute recovery system. Flytrex developed the parachute system using standards set by the FAA and American Society for Testing and Materials, better known as ASTM.

Those examples make clear how much practical progress we’re making with the IPP. When matched with the companion program, the Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management, or UTM, Pilot Program, or altogether, UPP—and thank goodness for acronyms, right?!— we are making concrete progress toward full UAS integration. We launched the UPP program three years ago to help us figure out how to do drone air traffic management.

NASA and the FAA have been working on UTM since 2015. It’s essentially a set of concepts and tools that we are developing with industry to safely manage dense low-altitude drone operations. UTM is not a specific equipment system; it will be complementary to the existing air traffic management system and will not replace it. We’re working closely with NASA who has done some of the heavy lifting with its UTM technical capability level, or TCL, demonstrations.

But we’re also running our own UPP tests and have made significant progress this summer.

In June, the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership demonstrated separate BVLOS drone flights delivering packages, studying wildlife, surveying corn fields and covering a court case for TV near the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Virginia. All of the operators submitted their flight plans through a service supplier and received approval, and none were flying in airspace where regular FAA separation services are provided.

The true value of a UTM system became obvious when a simulated emergency helicopter needed to transport a crash victim to the hospital in the area where the drones were operating.  The helicopter pilot submitted a request for what we call a UAS Volume Reservation or UVR—that’s an alert that the UTM system delivers to nearby drone operators. In this case, the deliveries were rerouted; the wildlife study, field survey and court coverage continued, but safely away from the helicopter’s path.

We ran similar tests in Grand Forks, North Dakota, in July, and here in Las Vegas, in early August. In both cases, either Medivac helicopters or first responders submitted UVRs that allowed multiple drone operators doing other business in the vicinity to safely accommodate the high-priority flight.

A key element of these UTM tests is having some form of remote identification—the ability for those managing or monitoring the traffic to be able to contact the drone or its control station, or both, when necessary. We plan to publish a draft rule later this year on how we can do that.  

Other regulatory advances we’re making include a new proposed rule we published in February that would allow Part 107 operations over people and at night. We received more than 900 comments that we’re now evaluating.

That’s a lot of work enabled under Part 107. But as you know, there is also a great deal of activity outside of Part 107. In fact seven of our nine IPP lead participants or their partners are applying for Part 135 certificates to be able to deliver goods. One of those participants, Wing Aviation, already received its approval in April. The Part 135 certificate requires much higher safety hurdles, including type certification for the drone and an economic authority approval by the Department of Transportation.

The future payoff for the additional safety measures and certification requirements will be in more liberalized operation. Wing, for example, will initially operate only in certain rural areas around Blacksburg, Virginia. Down the road, it’s likely that companies like Wing will take the lessons learned from these flights and apply them to more complex operating scenarios.

Helping with all of this is Secretary Chao’s support for IPP and UPP, and a regulatory push from Congress. A whopping 130 pages of our 2018 Reauthorization covered drone-related provisions, including instructions to streamline the Part 107 waiver application process and to consider industry recommendations in other areas, a task we just assigned to the Drone Advisory Committee.

I think even the most skeptical among us would have to agree that the FAA and industry have made a lot of progress of late. Even so, we’re still in the crawl phase of our Crawl, Walk, Run strategy for full integration.

So what do we consider walking? More urban operations, day and night, more BVLOS flights of longer distances and multiple UAS per flight path and per operator.

Running? I’m not even sure we’ve flushed that out yet. Earlier this summer, I would have said it was Urban Air Mobility—flying taxis—the Jetsons. Given how fast everything moves in this industry, it’s just possible that UAM has already been upstaged.  I guess I’ll find out when I walk the halls here…

In any case, walking and running are probably not that far off, especially given the hot pace we’ve all set this summer.

Thank you for your time. I know you guys are going to have a great conference.