Policy Leading to Trusted Integration

Administrator Stephen M Dickson (August 12, 2019 - present)

Thank you, Brian (Wynne), for that introduction. I can honestly say it’s a pleasure to join you here, in person, in my home town of Atlanta. I think it’s fairly well known that Atlanta is also home to a hotbed of activity in the drone aerial photography and cinematography world.

In fact, one of my sons runs a drone photography business here. While I didn’t teach him to fly—since I’m not yet a drone pilot myself—I do know he will think of me often….since my name is on his Part 107 certificate.

But I was thinking about Atlanta and drones recently as I watched the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. The last time the U.S. hosted the summer Olympics was here, in 1996.

Now I don’t know about you, but I’m partial to the opening ceremonies for these events—I find them to be very uplifting.

In the 1996 opening ceremonies, we had a fantastic rendition of “Georgia on My Mind” from Gladys Knight, but there were no drones. In fact, the word “drone” at that time was still associated with male honeybees.

Just 15 years later, drones—of the UAS species—have become synonymous with Olympic opening ceremonies.

In Tokyo, Intel Drone Light Shows stole the show when they flew more than eighteen hundred Shooting Star 3, LED-equipped drones in mesmerizing formations high over the stadium at night, at one point forming a 3D model of a rotating earth. It was breathtaking.

In 2018, the Intel folks flew twelve-hundred drones in formation for Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.

Who can imagine what’s next for Beijing in 2022 or Paris in 2024? The only thing that’s for sure is that drones will be involved, and the show will get more and more amazing.

These are great examples of how fast this industry moves, and how hard it is for someone like me to watch the events and wonder how to balance all of this innovation with the safety afforded by smart and fair regulation.

After all, that’s the FAA’s job.

The public fully expects all aspects of aviation to be as safe as commercial airlines have become. Businesses and operators who don’t understand that are probably not going to be in business for long.

So how do we, the FAA, fairly and equitably integrate all of this cool technology into our National Airspace System and do it in a safe and predictable way?

This is where I take off my Braves cap, put on my FAA hard hat, and we roll up our sleeves to have a talk about Policy Leading to Trusted Integration, which as you know, is the title of my keynote.

Let’s start with policy.

Picture this—an aircraft in flight with the four forces acting on it—lift pushing up, gravity pulling down, thrust propelling forward, and drag tugging rearward. There’s an old joke that the rearward force is actually the FAA….holding everyone back with our draconian policies and regulations.

Now, I come from the commercial side, and I have to admit, I had my own opinions about the FAA in relation to drag back then. On this side of the fence, you see things differently.

As FAA Administrator, I see policy and the accompanying regulations as a protective sphere or envelope around the aircraft. The envelope gives the operator a comfort zone within which he or she can be assured of a safe operation before reaching any edge, where safety—yours and the public’s—might not be assured.

For drone integration, we’ve done our best to allow for as much development and operational work as possible within the existing regulatory framework. But obviously we’ve had to make changes occasionally to make sure the protective envelope is as robust as it needs to be.

We’re actually at the point right now where we’re bumping up against that envelope, so there are some very important and groundbreaking performance-based rules on the horizon, especially in relation to Beyond Visual Line of Sight operations—BVLOS for short—and drone certification.

Before we talk about that, let’s first take a look in the policy rear view mirror.

Policy affecting what we now refer to as “drones” started 40 years ago, when we issued Advisory Circular 91-57, outlining certain operating standards for model aircraft and encouraging voluntary compliance with safety standards.

All was quiet until 2012, when the small drone industry discovered a huge untapped market potential. Suddenly, there was a need to make sure we had a protective envelope around an entirely new kind of aircraft.

Congress required the FAA to create a way to authorize these so-called “non-hobby” drone operations, and set out methods to obtain waivers or exemptions for operations. The law also created the small UAS classification for drones weighing less than 55 pounds.

We followed up in 2015 with registration and marking rules and guidance for small drones. The idea was to link an operator to an aircraft.

In 2016, we published Part 107—known as the Small UAS Rule—which created the Remote Pilot Certificate that now has my signature on it. Part 107 rule also set operational standards for commercial small drone flights.

Two years later, in 2018, Congress required that we synchronize requirements for recreational flyers to be more in line with Part 107’s commercial operations, and that we roll out safety tests for recreational pilots. That ultimately led to The Recreational UAS Safety Test, or TRUST, that I’ll talk about later.  

Finally, in January of this year, we expanded the protective envelope with two more rules. First, we published a rule that modified Part 107 to allow routine operations over people and routine operations at night under certain circumstances. Second, we published the remote identification rule, which has compliance dates of September 2022 for manufacturers, and September 2023 for remote pilots.

Regarding night operations, I want to emphasize that Part 107 pilots must complete the new online training course and equip with the proper anti-collision lighting.

Working with the industry, we’ve also done a great deal to make the public comfortable with the technology, particularly over the past year or so when drones displayed their unique value.

The package delivery companies, in particular, were innovative and flexible, modifying their services to deliver medications, supplies, food, personal protective equipment, vaccines, and even schoolbooks. For a brief period, news stories about drones were all positive!

With that backdrop, we’ve now built a solid foundation for some amazing things to come.

We’ll be working on rules for BVLOS, often referred to as the holy grail of drone ops. This is a necessary evolution if this industry is to continue to grow.

We get that, and all of us know that our rules, as written, are not adequate.

For one thing, approving operations on a case-by-case basis is not a feasible or efficient way forward. So we’ll have to have new rules, and we’re working closely with everyone here to do it right.

We will also evolve the way we certify certain drones through the MOSAIC rule, which stands for Modernization of Special Airworthiness Certificates.

Yes, we have to have an acronym for everything! In a nutshell, MOSAIC will enable more drone operations by appropriately scaling our aircraft certification requirements with the risk of the operation.

We won’t be developing these rules in a vacuum; we need everyone at the table. I’ll say a bit more about how we’re doing that for BVLOS in a moment.

But first, let’s talk about the second part of my speech title—Trusted Integration.

What is trusted integration? To me that means, we—the FAA, the industry and academia, and the user community—have confidence that we’re all on the same page and moving in the same direction to get drones safely and efficiently integrated into the National Airspace System. We trust you. You trust us.  

For the FAA’s part, we’re building trust by doing our best to achieve consensus when we make rules, and we’re making it as easy as possible for operators to follow the rules once they’re implemented.

I’ll give two examples for how we’re making it easier to follow the rules—TRUST and LAANC

First, TRUST. In my timeline earlier, I noted that Congress in 2018 required that we roll out a safety test for recreational pilots. In response, we created TRUST, which stands for The Recreational UAS Safety Test. TRUST is online; it’s easy to use; it’s free, and the reviews have been positive.

Second, LAANC—the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability. In plain terms, this was the “file and fly” capability you asked for and we delivered on. Right now, it’s available at more than 500 air traffic facilities and more than 700 airports. We’ve approved more than 775,000 airspace authorizations to date.

LAANC was a big step forward in terms of automating systems to support a large volume of UAS operations, with near real-time authorizations within UAS facility map locations. LAANC continues to be an agile solution that adjusts to support new UAS policies and regulations such as changes to Part 107 for Night Operations. 

We have also been able to expand airspace access, with the incorporation of more granular UAS facility maps known as “Quad Grids.” LAANC has become a pathfinder for how we are envisioning we will operate the drone air traffic management in the future.

So now let’s talk about how we can gain your trust when making new rules.

This is a tough one. I say that because getting us all on the same page when we make new rules is not easy—anyone looking at the number of comments we received in the remote ID rulemaking knows this…..There were 53,000, and we read every one.

But that’s a good thing. This is a diverse industry, and there are multitudes of competing interests for business—and for the FAA’s attention.

At the end of the day, not everyone will get exactly what they want, but we try to find solutions that, hopefully, everyone will agree are best for the industry as a whole.

That’s why we started preparing for the BVLOS rule by launching an Aviation Rulemaking Committee, or ARC.

The ARC charter was approved on June 8th, and I publicly announced it in my talk at our UAS Symposium the next day. Within an hour of that announcement, we sent out e-invitations to potential ARC members, and the group started its work immediately.

You can be sure the debates will be intense, but when we receive the ARC’s final recommendations at the end of the process later this year, we will know for sure that everyone had a say.

Ideally, we’ll also have everyone’s trust—and maybe even consensus—as we move forward with BVLOS as a new phase of airspace integration.

And in the end, that’s what it’s all about—government and the UAS community—coming together to provide solutions that enable this fast-moving sector to continue delivering groundbreaking solutions for the public, and doing so safely.

Policy provides the path to get there, and trusted integration makes everyone a part of the solution.  

Like that massive formation of Shooting Star drones over the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, if we work together and in harmony, we’ll create works of art that people will remember, and that move this industry forward. 

Thank you for listening, and have a great Xponential!