Safety First

Former Acting Administrator, Daniel K. Elwell (February 2018–August 09, 2019)

Good morning. There’s a tendency, I think, to get caught up in the winds of technology. To the awe and the wonder and the incredible promise of what technology can do, of the potential it can bring—to how we live, how we work, how we think about, literally, the way things are.  We felt that way with the lap top, and we felt it again with the smart phone.  

And now, looking at a symposium that’s got more enthusiasm and excitement than there’s room for, well, we’re having that kind of moment again.

If you’re thinking, “The age of unmanned aircraft has arrived.”  I think that, too.  Given the year that was, it’s hard not to agree right down the line.  Development has become production, and that’s given way to application, and that’s now well down the road to operations and integration.  

The technology appears to have hit a sweet spot, the place where the right thing is happening the right way at the right time.  The applications we hoped for are the operations we have.  And those we have not are soon to be.  

Now as we accelerate toward integration—seamless integration—let us remember that to become a full-fledged part of the national airspace system is not the stuff of technology or development or application.  It remains all about safety.  Safety should remain fundamental to our collective mission.

To the question of what’s next:  The when, the if, the how—they’re all secondary to the foundation on which all of this stands.  And make no mistake, that foundation is safety.  If it’s not safe, it’s not going to fly.  That’s true for absolutely everything that’s in the national airspace system, and it’s absolutely true for drones.  We demand that of the airlines.  We demand that of commercial space. And we demand that from you.  

I get it:  This is an audience of innovators driven, fundamentally, by a “Fail Fast” mentality.  After all…isn’t that how progress is made? You fail, you learn, you improve.  

We can fail—and we will—but we just can’t fail with casualties or collateral damage.  It has to be that way. To borrow an overused sports quote, safety isn’t everything … it’s the only thing. But to really reach the full potential this industry has to offer, you must make safety your thing as well.  Together, we will solve the most difficult technical and policy challenges.  We have achieved an unparalleled record for safety, and the seamless integration of drones has tremendous potential to be part of that performance. But it can only happen if safety is our collective focus.

All things considered, the steady development and expansion of drones is proving to be transformational for aviation as a whole. The volume of UAS operations is fast outpacing manned aircraft.  Drones outnumber traditional, registered manned aircraft by four to one.  This is a fast-moving industry, and we’re doing our level best to keep up. We’ve redoubled our outreach to drone operators and the public to educate current and prospective drone users about their safety responsibilities.  We signed an agreement with AUVSI and AMA strengthening our partnership for the “Know before You Fly” educational campaign.  That encourages UAS operators and the general public to understand the rules and responsibilities for flying an aircraft in the NAS. Let’s face it, the national airspace system is the deep end of the pool. It’s not for the faint-hearted or the careless.  900 million passengers were in it last year.  Collectively, our education and outreach efforts are yielding results. The annual rate of increase of pilot reports about drones in places they shouldn’t be is dropping by 50 percent each year—while the number of UAS operating in the airspace is increasing.

Raising awareness makes a difference.  I’m proud to announce National Drone Safety Awareness Week.  I think it’s a creative way to connect the drone community with the general public.

The event will be held later this year. We want it to be an annual thing—a weeklong series of drone-related events that will put the spotlight on drone safety.  For communities, for stakeholders—in all 50 states. It’s aimed at being a public-private partnership that will draw upon the collective resources of the drone community with guidance and support from the FAA and DOT.  

Together, we’ll develop an on-line playbook with suggestions to make this fly.  We want everyone in on the conversation–manufacturers, operators, policy makers, public safety officials, state and local legislators, educators, the Test Sites, the Integration Pilot Program Lead Participants, the UAS Center of excellence, FAA regional resources and staff, model aircraft field operators, retailers, the research community.  We have a lot of people to reach.  Later this week, we will be discussing this topic with our Drone Advisory Committee.  We’re going to post additional details on how you can be a part of this conversation as quickly as possible.  

We’re thinking outside the box.  We want to be more than the rule maker.  

When it comes to policy making, we want to be the enabler for bright minds to come up with things that quite frankly we hadn’t thought of.    We recently moved forward with a number of enabling regulatory initiatives.  On February 13, we published a proposed new rule on the operation of small UAS over people.  Easily said, much harder to do.  The trick is to mitigate safety risks without putting the cuffs on technological and operational advances.  

We also put out an ANPRM asking for your thoughts on the best ways to identify drone safety and security issues.  What risks do drones create in communities and around critical infrastructure and sensitive security sites, and what’s the best way to reduce them?  We want broad thinking here:  the risks to aircraft, the risks to people on the ground, the risks to national security.  9/11 taught us a lot as an industry and as a nation.  We want to use this advance notice to make sure we don’t have to learn any of those lessons twice.  Security and public safety questions are just about the most important questions we can be asking, and we need to be asking them at every turn.  

That’s why we put out an interim final rule in February on external marking requirements for small UAS.  Registration numbers are aviation’s license plate:  everybody’s got to have one.  You’ve got to display your unique identifier on an external surface.  That’s how we do it in traditional aviation, and that registration number has served us well.  As you know, we assign those identifiers upon completion of the registration process.  And, yes, NCC-1701 is taken.  Because of this rule, first responders can address the incident at hand—instead of having to open the battery compartment.

This brings us to remote ID. Congress called for this in 2016.  That laid the foundation for FAA’s work with operators and our security partners.  Everyone gets this.  Maybe better put, everyone needs to get this.  While we can think of registration markings as a drone’s physical license plate, we can view remote ID as the electronic counterpart.  We’ve got to establish the importance of remote identification, and we’ve got to reach a consensus on how to do it as quickly as feasible.  Last year, Congress gave even more authority to the FAA to move ahead with work on universal registration and remote identification.  I must emphasize here:  this isn’t a paperwork exercise.  We’ve got to work together.  Safe operations and safe integration both demand that we get this right.  If we don’t, we’ll have a patchwork system that you can’t use and we can’t manage.  Without that, UAS integration is not going to progress much further.  

Remote identification is the gateway to beyond visual line-of-sight operations and operations over people.  It’s the backbone for UAS Traffic Management.  Remote ID is the enabler for package delivery, for operations in congested areas, for the continued safe operation of all aircraft in shared airspace.  In the future, it’s what makes Urban Air Mobility possible. It’s going to make automated cargo-carrying air transportation a reality.  From a security perspective, universal remote identification will enable the FAA and our national security partners to identify friend from foe, thus enabling effective security response, investigation, education, and, when necessary, enforcement.  This topic is so important, we’ll be talking more about it with the Drone Advisory Committee later this week.

Security is an issue for all of us.  As you all know, the unauthorized use of UAS poses a real problem around airports.  At Gatwick, Heathrow, Dubai—and right here near Newark—we’ve seen how the presence of unauthorized UAS can disrupt air travel and cause safety concerns. Because there are existing laws on the use of counter UAS technologies, the FAA recently published guidance on our website for airport operators on the deployment of counter UAS solutions.  

This “checklist” for airports to follow, helps further facilitate coordination with the FAA on the deployment of UAS detection systems.  And we are also working with our federal security partners and airport stakeholders to develop a federal response plan for countering persistent UAS disruptions at major U.S. airports—taking lessons learned from our foreign partners, like the U.K. There’s no magic formula here:  don’t fly your drone without authorization near an airport.  We aren’t shy about pursuing enforcement action. This coordination allows the FAA to identify and assess potential safety hazards as well as develop coordinated operational response protocols that will help prevent undesirable safety and efficiency impacts.

Just one bad incident, intentional or unintentional, can have a lasting negative impact on this emerging industry.  We are focusing our educational efforts on the clueless and the careless and our enforcement activities on the criminal.  This is a top priority, and as well it should be.  That’s why FAA is committed to establishing remote identification requirements as quickly as possible.  

In short, we’re committed to making this UAS integration a reality.  Eighteen months ago, we launched the UAS Integration Pilot Program. Nine different communities across the country are pushing the envelope to identify ways to balance local and national interests.  The IPP is a case study in communications, security, privacy and data collection.  

This is about global leadership. Secretary Chao was right when she said that we must lead the way.  The experience gained and the data collected from the IPP will help ensure the United States remains the global leader in safe UAS integration and fully realizes the economic and societal benefits of this technology.  

It’s already paying off.  We recently granted the first air carrier certification to a commercial drone operator for package deliveries in rural Blacksburg, Virginia.

The Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability most people call LAANC is live at 600 airports and we’ve processed 100,000 LAANC authorizations.  We worked with DOJ and FBI to quickly enable the safe use of Counter UAS systems to protect the Super Bowl.  We held an urban air mobility roundtable.  We held a series of webinars on how to fill out waiver applications to speed processing times.  We’re in the midst of a second webinar series on airspace requirements and restrictions.  We partnered with Kitty Hawk to re-imagine and re-develop B4UFLY.  New members were appointed to the Drone Advisory Committee.  And we announced the exceptions for limited recreational operations of unmanned aircraft.  

But that’s not everything.  In response to a Congressional requirement, later today, we’ll release a Broad Agency Announcement on the FAA’s contracting opportunities website.  We’re going to partner with qualified commercial entities that will match our $6 million dollar budget to perform UAS-integration related work at the Test Sites.  Through these contracts, the FAA intends to bridge the gap between industry and the Test Sites.  These partnerships will help us tackle some of the most pressing technical and operational challenges.  

In short, we’re focused and we’re gaining ground.  We want to integrate, not segregate.  We’re setting a global standard.  And we’re showing that success quite clearly is not the exception to the rule.  The future for drones is as unlimited as your creativity, drive, and technical brilliance.  And I think the future for full integration is even more boundless. For our part, we seek to enable not to impede.  

We believe safety, innovation, and progress can coexist—in that order. Together, we can make this happen. Together, we are making history – in real time.  I’m glad you’re with us for the next few days.  Thank you.