A Success Story in the Making

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

Good morning, everybody.

I know what you’re thinking: Oh, jeez…the regulator’s here. He’s probably going to tell us he’s “here to help.”

You laugh. But I get it – there’s a certain degree of skepticism when the fed shows up at an event like this.

I don’t know that I blame you. After all, the old government philosophy of “If it ain’t broke, let’s fix it anyway” is the ultimate buzzkill.

Well… that’s not who I am. And that’s absolutely not what the Department of Transportation or this Administration is all about.

Believe it or not, we all want the same thing. We all know unmanned aircraft aren’t a novelty – some expensive toy that needs to be accommodated. And we’re ready for the day when drones are a fully integrated, everyday player in our nation’s airspace.

So how do we make that happen safely – and faster?

Well…to start with, we all need to acknowledge: Remotely piloted aircraft are a disruptive technology.

In this room, that’s almost always a good thing, right? Drones are reinventing industries… creating new ones. They’re going to do for aviation what the internet did for information.

I’ve been a pilot most of my life. But when I look around at some of the things you’re working on here at InterDrone… the possibilities blow me away.

But as exciting as this all is… it can also make people nervous.

Safety… security… access… privacy…The public has very real and justified questions about these aircraft. And their concerns can’t just be swept under the rug.

If we want this technology to take hold, we’ve got to take these questions head on.

Opinions about drones are still being formed. That’s in our favor. And we can make the most of that opportunity by being responsive.

The recent event in Venezuela reminds us: All it takes is one bad actor… one unfortunate incident… And this industry could be grounded before it ever really takes off.

That’s not hyperbole. Sky-high expectations are just part of the world you’re operating in.

The national airspace system doesn’t have room for error. When something goes wrong up there, it shakes people’s confidence down here. And the entire industry feels the impact.

Fortunately, incidents like that are extremely rare. Airplanes are safer and more resilient than at any point in history. The people operating in the system take safety so seriously that they self-report mistakes. And that voluntary data reporting allows us to root out areas of risk in the system long before incidents occur.

The result? Aviation is the gold standard. The safest form of transportation in the world. That’s not a position we’re about to take a step back on.

I’ve heard this argument a few times: Back in Orville and Wilbur’s era, people were willing to risk their lives for the birth of a new form of transportation. Now that we’re on the cusp of aviation’s next great era, shouldn’t we be willing to accept some of the same risks in the name of progress?

Folks, there’s a really simple answer to that question: No.

Manned aviation already learned those lessons. We paid that price. We’re not going to do it again. And the public wouldn’t let us, anyway.

Now, this insistence on safety isn’t some limitation on unmanned aircraft. On the contrary… it’s a leg up.

Because you’re not starting from scratch, like the Wright brothers. The FAA has spent six decades working with airlines, manufacturers, and countless others to get where we are now. And we’re ready to use everything we’ve learned so that the drone industry can reach its full potential as quickly as possible.

Let me tell you a quick story.

A TV company was using a drone to film exteriors out in Louisville, Kentucky a couple weeks ago. And they just so happened to set up in the parking lot of the FAA’s local Flight Standards office.

Our folks naturally got curious about the drone flying in their parking lot, and struck up a conversation with the production manager. Turns out, an uncertified pilot was flying an unregistered drone.

So what do you think the inspector did…confiscate the drone? Issue a fine?

No. Our guys didn’t write them a ticket, or start talking about fines. They sat down with them, and helped register their drone right there in the FAA’s conference room. Walked them through the rules and next steps.

The crew couldn’t believe it. That we wanted to help them get back to filming – the right way – as quickly as possible.

You know…if there’s one thing I want you to take away from this conference, it’s this: the FAA is open for business.

For folks who are committed to doing the right thing… we’re not your adversary. We’re as invested in integrating unmanned aircraft into the system as you are.

Innovation is one of Secretary Chao’s top priorities for the Department of Transportation. And we’re building flexible, responsive regulatory processes that can keep up with all your creativity while ensuring safety isn’t compromised.

We’ve automated how drone operators get permission to fly in controlled airspace.

We’re laying the groundwork for a comprehensive Unmanned Traffic Management System.

We’ve authorized low-risk small drone flights, and created a performance-based waiver and exemption process to allow more advanced operations.

And Secretary Chao recently launched the UAS Integration Pilot Program to let us work with local governments and private industry to figure out how best to expand unmanned operations beyond what’s allowed by current regulations.

That’s a Cabinet-level official who’s leaning in, and saying “Let’s move our efforts into the fast lane.”

The first test under the pilot program happened a few weeks ago in Blacksburg, Virginia. A Project Wing drone delivered a popsicle to a two-year-old boy, just six minutes after the order was placed.

It was historic – the first beyond visual line-of-sight residential drone delivery in the United States.It was the “Mr. Watson, I want to see you” for the 21st century.

But to Little Jack, it was just cool. In his words: “Airplane brought me a Popsicle!”

These are important steps forward – steps that bring drones closer to just being a routine operator in our airspace.

But there are still critical hurdles that need to be cleared before that’s a reality. And they are issues the FAA cannot tackle alone.

Everyone’s interested in drone operations at night and over people. But we need to address the concerns that our national security and law enforcement partners have first.

Chief among them: we – and that’s a collective ‘we,’ not just the FAA – have to be able to identify every drone in the airspace, and who’s operating it. The National Airspace System is no place for hide-and-seek.

This is common sense stuff. No one’s okay with the idea of people driving down the highway without a license in their pocket and a tag on their vehicle. Why should operating a drone be any different?

But right now, the FAA’s hands are tied by a law that says we cannot require remote identification on model aircraft.

This isn’t a sustainable situation. Until we can set remote ID requirements that will be universally applied to every drone… until we can make sure everyone is following the same rules inside the system… full integration just isn’t possible.

Now, Congress knows this is an issue. And I’m hopeful we’ll see a legislative fix soon – maybe even as part of the FAA’s next reauthorization.

As soon as this gets resolved, rest assured: we’re ready to move forward as quickly as possible.

That’s not the only question hanging out there.

How are drones going to interact with each other? And with other users flying in the system?

How can we make sure unmanned aircraft don’t interfere with critical infrastructure? Or emergency response efforts?

Remember “dull, dirty, and dangerous”? Drones shouldn’t be impediments – they should be first responders at events like the California wildfires. That’s what we should be working toward.

I’m not going to stand up here and claim I’ve got the answers. I’m not a tech guy – and the FAA is not a tech company.

Our business is safety. So when we look at an aircraft, we want to know two basic things: Is it reliable? And does it play nicely with others?

That’s it. Don’t fall out of the sky, and don’t crash into other aircraft. It sounds simple. But the execution can be a lot more complex. Especially when it’s an entirely new class of users coming into a system that already includes jumbo jets, helicopters, balloons, rockets, and everything in between.

The fact is, a lot of safety problems require technological solutions. And that means we need buy-in from all of you. The innovators. The inventers. The out-of-the-box thinkers.

Nobody knows how to tackle tough tech challenges better than the folks in this room. That’s what got you here. The advancements being highlighted this week are proof of that.

So here’s my advice: If you share the FAA’s goal of fully integrating drones into our airspace as soon as possible… don’t just make the business case for your products or operations. Start making the safety case, too. They go hand-in-hand.

And don’t be afraid to take on the problems that are bigger than your individual companies. Go after the issues that are affecting the unmanned aircraft community as a whole – and share what you’re doing at events like this one.

I truly believe you’re going to find the most success – more quickly – if you work together.

Some of you are already doing this. And it’s probably the single biggest lesson we’ve learned over the years in aviation.

If a company develops a new safety enhancement, they don’t keep it to themselves. Or use it to sell more aircraft than the other guy. They share it with everybody else.

Over twenty years ago, the FAA actually put together a team specifically designed to share safety information, and then do something with the safety information that’s being shared.  

It’s called CAST – the Commercial Aviation Safety Team. It’s a mix of safety professionals from industry and government – a group of about a thousand that shares data and safety ideas.

In a world where it’s hard enough to get two people to agree on anything, this group is a stark exception to the rule.  

CAST is responsible for implementing about 200 safety enhancements that are largely responsible for commercial aviation’s historic safety record.  

One more thing you need to know about those safety enhancements: they’re voluntary. This industry doesn’t wait for a rule, or a government mandate, or a call to action.

Safety is a race we run together, and CAST wants everyone in the system to finish in a tie for first. And that, I say with a certain amount of awe and not a little bit of pride, is what happens.

That’s why we went over nine years without a single fatality in commercial aviation. Safety is not a table for one.

And all of this is not just for the big guys … the airlines, the manufacturers, who dominate the system.  It’s about general aviation just as well – the private pilots. For them, we formed the General Aviation Joint Safety Committee for the same purpose. 

In October 2016, we launched a similar effort designed just for this community – the Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team. Given the success we’ve seen with CAST, and the growing success we’re seeing with the general aviation community, I have no doubt that, in time, we’ll see more of the same with you.

It sounds strange, maybe even a little weird, but the concept works, and the numbers prove it.  

I know you guard your trade secrets and proprietary technologies, as well you should. We’re not looking for the keys to the cabinet that holds your secret plans.  

But we do want to know about safety mistakes that can end in tragedy.  

That’s the thing about sharing this kind of information: we can’t spot trends if the cards aren’t face up on the table.  

What you think is a fluke – a one in a million, an event that’ll never happen again – might very well be happening on this coast, that one, and at a number of cities in between. But we won’t know that, and you won’t know that, unless you share the information.  

This is the reason for aviation’s unprecedented record. We don’t compete on safety.

That’s the business we’re in. Now it’s your business, too. And I’m really happy to welcome you into the fold.

For the last few years, at events like this, we’ve had a tendency to spend too much time reassuring each other.

Industry tells the FAA what drones are capable of, and that what you’re doing isn’t some kind of fad. And guys like me come here and tell you… We get it. We’re on top of the issue.

I think it’s time to end the therapy sessions.

You’ve proven that unmanned aircraft are here to stay.

And I think – I hope – the FAA has proven that we’re 100 percent committed to making you a regular part of our national airspace.

Look…we’re not strangers anymore. We’re partners. In innovation and safety.

This is more than a work in progress. This is a success story in the making. I am confident of that. And you are giving me all the reasons in the world to keep it that way.

Thank you.