Uber Elevate Urban Air Mobility Summit 2019

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

Watch a video of this speech.

Thank you for that kind introduction Nikhil. It is awesome to be here, soaking up the energy, creativity and innovation of a brand new form of transportation.

I find your vision for the future to be refreshing…invigorating even. And that’s not easy to say, coming from where I come from.

We at the FAA have historically been a bit reticent to welcome “new entrants” in the National Airspace System, but that is changing rapidly.  

It has to change, because this kind of energy, innovation and vision is what will fuel the future of aerospace, and frankly, get the next generation of kids interested in taking part.

They see innovation as a Tesla roadster circling the sun blasting David Bowie…or rocket boosters coming back and landing softly on the earth;

or drones delivering popsicles, or slipping the surly bonds of traffic in a flying taxi.

Hey… let’s face it…you guys make aerospace cool again.

The energy you bring is also helping us at the FAA become more responsive to a rapidly evolving aerospace industry.

Gone are the days when we could ignore an entrant that was radically different. Nowadays, we either evolve or we get left behind.

We learned that the hard way when UAS technologies and an entirely new industry sprung up practically overnight and we weren’t ready for it.

We’re sort of caught up now, but we are also determined not to let it happen again.

That’s why we’re out in front with urban air mobility, or UAM, working with the industry and with NASA to make sure we get it right.

Time is short — companies are already testing a variety of vehicles both in the U.S. and abroad, some with passengers.

These two movements — UAS and UAM — really bring into focus how fast everything is changing now compared to earlier in my aviation career.

It doesn’t seem possible that when I started flying as a C-141 pilot in the Air Force only 30-some years ago –

yes…I realize that for a lot of the people in this crowd, 30-something years is like forever –

But, when I started flying we had a dedicated navigator who would look through a small porthole in the top of the flight deck with – a sextant.

Yes, a sextant. It’s essentially the same equipment that Magellan used hundreds of years ago to look at the stars and get a position fix on the high seas.

Well, we got rid of the navigator and his medieval sextant in the 1980s when we ushered in the age of inertial navigation.

And soon after, computers and advanced systems design made flight engineers obsolete, leaving a pilot and copilot.

The pace of change picked up in the late 90s with the introduction of GPS, which greatly simplified navigation.

When GPS was combined with sensor and actuator miniaturization, more computer power and lithium-chemistry batteries, the unmanned aircraft revolution kicked into high gear.

And then some very bright minds saw too many people sitting in traffic and thought – we can take all this technology and create a better way to move around cities—UAM.

Look what you collectively as an industry conceived and are currently working on.

These are some of the most exciting innovations and developments in aerospace since the Wright Brothers, and it’s all taken place over the course of a few short years.

Everyone is riveted by this. But then I put on my FAA regulator hat and now I’ve got something new to keep me awake at night.

You see the ideal way of transporting people across cities. I see car-sized vehicles with multiple rotors hanging over dense urban areas.

That’s the challenge – taking an industry of incredibly bright minds and fast-moving technology and joining that with a regulatory agency that wants innovation, but only if it can be safely brought into an urban environment.

It’s why we have come up with the crawl, walk, run analogy.

As I said earlier, the FAA can no longer just say no to a new entrant. We are evolving – and quite rapidly for us – into a more responsive regulator.

And just like with technology, the pace of our evolution is accelerating.

Back in the 80s when I got into the business, it was not unusual for the FAA to take five or six years to write a rule – do you have the patience for that?

It was fine to take 10-12 years to develop and certify a new aircraft type – do you have the patience for that??

As you know, today, with the tech eruption that is coming to the aviation world, product cycles can be measured in months.

We don’t have the luxury of so much time any more, but we have to ensure that safety is paramount. That cannot change.

So how do we do that?

We become a data-driven oversight organization that prioritizes safety above all else. 

To do safety right, you have to start with a safety culture. A good safety culture produces the data you need to figure out what’s really happening.

If we know about errors, we can fix the processes that led to those errors.

A safety culture demands that we infuse that safety data into all of our processes from top to bottom—in a continuous loop.  

When you think about how far aviation has come in a little more than a century, it’s hard to argue the point.

We’ve gone from barnstorming to a safety record that is the envy of all modes of transportation.  

We evolve in our rulemaking by transitioning from prescriptive to performance-based rules.

A few years ago, industry helped us modernize Part 23 airworthiness standards for how we certify small aircraft.

Performance-based rules will ultimately form the backbone for how UAM vehicles will be built.

For new entrants, we started with our legacy regulatory framework but have evolved to an “operations first” approach where we use existing rules where we can, and derive new rules where we need. As usual, safety is the primary concern.

Integrating UAS into the National Airspace System is a good example. Our process is simple: Get the data to assess our risks and then create useful regulations, policies and guidance where needed.

As a point of reference for how fast this industry is moving, the FAA has been registering manned aircraft for 92 years, and after only four years of registering drones, we’ve got four times as many on the books.

The UAS Integration Pilot Program, through a variety of demonstrations, is helping us capture data. It’s also paying dividends on the investment side.

Recently, the FAA granted the first air carrier certification to Wing Aviation, a commercial drone operator.

Wing is doing beyond-visual line-of-sight package deliveries in rural Blacksburg, Virginia, using existing rules.

What happens next is that we gradually implement new rules to expand when and how those operators can conduct their business safely and securely.

We’ve just closed the public comment period for proposed new rules that would allow small UAS to operate over people and at night.

On the horizon are rules for beyond visual-line-of-sight operations — the Holy Grail of UAS rules.

To manage the traffic, we’re working with NASA and industry on a highly automated UAS Traffic Management, or UTM, system.  

Even though we’re in the crawling phase of our crawl, walk, run path to full integration, we’re seeing positive impacts — small drones are already changing the landscape of our economy and society.

And here are a few examples:

In San Diego, the Chula Vista police department and CAPE, a private UAS teleoperations company, are using drones as first responders to provide aerial views for officers to document accident or crime scenes, and search for missing persons.  

Since October, they have launched drone first responders on more than 500 calls in which 67 arrests were made.

And for half of those calls, the drone was first on the scene with an average on-scene response time of 96 seconds.

Equally important is the 75 times that having the drone there first alleviated the need to send officers at all.

In Kansas, the State Department of Transportation showed us how to use drones for power line inspections and precision agriculture.

The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is using them to bait feral hog traps.

In North Carolina, they delivered blood samples to a lab for testing.

Drones delivered automated external defibrillators in Reno, Nevada, and inspected airport ramps and perimeter fencing in Memphis.

I have a strong hunch that the benefits we discover with Urban Air Mobility will be no less extraordinary.

NASA will again be our partner in this area with their UAM Grand Challenge planned for next year.

The Grand Challenge is about bringing the best and brightest minds from government and industry together to begin live testing of carefully designed scenarios to show how a variety of vehicles and airspace management systems will – or won’t – work together.

And most importantly, to gather data.

That’s crawling. We’re not ready to walk or run yet.

Walking and running will require that these highly automated or autonomous vehicles and systems meet the FAA’s – and the public’s – safety expectations for aviation when they buy a ticket…and as we’ve discussed, those expectations are very high.

We understand your desire to sprint out of the starting gate, but you have to understand our safety mandate.

Let’s begin this integration by working with industry to start crawling, with low-risk operations in remote areas, gathering data and evaluating safety all the while.

When we’re ready, we’ll systematically graduate to high-density urban areas with semi-autonomous operations – the walking phase.

And, eventually, the system will mature to fully autonomous operations in busy urban airspace – running.

And that’s where – given the level of safety that we have in the National Airspace System – we can’t fail.

Achieving this final state for a radically different new entrant will be an evolutionary process. It won’t occur overnight, but it also won’t take as long as it would have with yesterday’s FAA.

Here’s my challenge to you today: Shoot for the stars – the commercial aviation safety record.

In the past 10 years, there have been more than 90 million commercial flights in our NAS, carrying more than 7 billion passengers, with one fatality.

That’s a safety record that’s hard to get your mind around in any human endeavor, much less one where you’re carrying humans in highly advanced aerospace vehicles at 500 mph, 7 miles above the earth.

You are working to become part of an elite club…commercial aviation. Work hard.

To be part of the safest mode of transportation on the planet, your operation must become synonymous with safety.

That’s the only way to fully exploit the energy, creativity and innovation of this exciting new industry.  

Thank you all.