Writing History in Real Time

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

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Good morning.  I often wonder if the Wrights around 100 years ago really understood the magnitude of their invention.  Or were they so caught up in flying that they didn’t allow themselves a moment to ponder—to ponder what would become their indelible thumbprint on the page of history? 

We find ourselves today at a juncture not unlike that one, but in this case, we’re acutely aware of the ripple created by unmanned aircraft.  In this day and age, we’re surrounded by innovation—perhapsbuffetedis the better word. 

I went to the Consumer Electronics Show in January, and I tell you – if you can dream it, I saw it at CES in Vegas.  Retailer and ridesharing companies are creating their own skunk works on pilotless aircraft to deliver packages and people.  The commercial space industry is making reusable rockets a reality.  They just put a Tesla into orbit.  We’re on the cusp of a new age of supersonic travel.  And self-driving cars are moving from Disney’s drawing board onto America’s roadways. 

If you are a student of aviation and a fan of innovation, today is your day.  History and innovation are about to meet at the intersection we call unmanned aircraft.  Drones are the future of aviation, but if past is prologue, and it most certainly is, drones are also the today of aviation, very much today.  This is history in the making—real time—and the people in this room are making it. 

In fact, I think the size of this audience is an indication of why we’re moving as quickly as we are.  Aviation has always depended on innovation—but as we’ve seen, innovation without collaboration is a non-starter.  Our recently completed Pathfinder program featured groups that we’d never partnered with before—like train operators and broadcasting outlets. I’d like to thank these partners – CNN, PrecisionHawk, and BNSF Railways – for successfully concluding Phase 3 of their pathfinder operations late last year.  

We also successfully completed the prototype evaluation for LAANC – the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability.  This automates how UAS operators get permission to fly in controlled airspace – a crucial first step for UAS traffic management.  We’re going to conduct a national beta test starting April 30.  Nearly 300 air traffic control facilities and 500 airports will be covered by September.  That’s a significant expansion of a successful program designed specifically and directly for the people in this room. 

In addition, beginning April 16, we’re going to start accepting applications from new partners looking to provide LAANC services.  Right now, there are five—Skyward, AirMap, Project Wing, Boeing and Rockwell Collins.  If you’re interested, you can find information on the application process on the FAA web site. 

With LAANC, pilots and drone companies can receive near real-time airspace authorizations – eliminating the manual authorization process that can sometimes take weeks. Controllers can see where planned drone operations will take place. This allows them to mitigate risk by ensuring no other aircraft are operating near the drone. I want you to know:  we’re listening.

I’m particularly proud of another effort I’m sure you’ve all heard about by now—the UAS Integration Pilot Program.  We’ve created an opportunity for State, local and tribal governments to partner with the private sector—people like UAS operators and manufacturers.  President Trump established this to accelerate integration … to ensure U.S. global leadership in this industry.  The response has been enthusiastic.  Given this crowd, no surprise there.  We had 149 lead applicants, from which Secretary Chao will select at least 10.  The pilot program is going to broaden our concept of what drones can do and help inform a streamlined regulatory posture going forward. 

That said, it’s important that safety continues to guide each step we take.

I’ve said on more than one occasion that safety is the key to the front door of the National Airspace System.  Our goal for unmanned aircraft remains full, complete and total integration.  But the cautionary tale from well-established aviators is, as I said a moment ago, one simple word:  safety.

Safety is our top priority, but it is everyone’s shared responsibility.  The U.S. national airspace system is the envy of the rest of the world.  It runs well, but it runs that way because safety guides everything we do. 

Other challenges warrant our attention.  Despite our success with the Part 107 small UAS rule—the world’s first comprehensive framework for UAS regulation—we’ve much more ahead of us.  We’re working to expand small UAS operating parameters while making sure we appropriately consider security and privacy issues.

The FAA, the Department, and the White House are all on the same page in this respect – working well both inside and outside the government is key to getting things done.  You’ll be hearing more about this in the near future.

As the regulator, we’ve got to adopt an attitude of “regulatory humility.”  We’ve got to get things done faster.  The U.S. Government is a behemoth – it doesn’t adapt very well to change. So while a big change like unmanned aircraft is happening as I speak, the FAA cannot make the mistake of thinking we have all the answers, all the time. We have to work with industry to develop technology and solutions to our common problems.

Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the FAA to ensure we have the appropriate standards in place to assure the NAS is safe for all users.  Likewise, we mustn’t lose focus of the safety of the people on the ground.  Working together, we’ve begun the iterative process of UAS integration while maintaining safety.

We also continue to evaluate remote identification for unmanned aircraft.  For this industry to flourish commercially and be of public service, all aircraft—unmanned or otherwise—must be identifiable.  You wouldn’t expect to see unlicensed vehicles on the highway.  Dirt bikes are fine for the woods, but when you see one on the beltway, there’s a problem—a problem for them and a problem for everyone around them.

We’re committed to moving very quickly to establish remote ID requirements.  Civil aviation in the United States has become the symbol of safety because of situational awareness.  If you want to fly in the system, you have to be identifiable and follow the rules. 

The provisions excepting model aircraft in the FAA Modernization Act of 2012 from any regulation must be revisited—soon—to address ongoing concerns related to security, law enforcement and integration.  Reasonable steps should be taken to ensure accountability without overburdening the public, and collaboration between government and stakeholders, as mentioned before, will be critical to meeting these challenges.  

I’d be remiss not to mention the need to mitigate risks to national security and public safety posed by people who aren’t playing by the rules--whether by intent or ignorance.  If you think about it, a malicious act could put a hard stop on drone integration.  And in that case, we’d lose the true safety benefits to people like powerline and mine inspectors who would have to put themselves back into harm’s way without the use of drones. 

Obviously, we can’t let that happen.  We can’t lose traction, nor can we jeopardize public safety or national security.  We’re working with partners across the government to find ways to address security issues.  We must ensure that the United States remains a global leader—and that we benefit from this rapidly developing sector of the economy.   Make no mistake that public safety and national securityremaintoppriorities. 

Congress has given DOD and the Department of Energy the authority to counter UAS that threaten sensitive facilities.  From where I stand, that’s the right move.  We support enabling other security partners such as the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to protect assets and operations critical to national security. By enabling Federal security and law enforcement agencies to detect and mitigate risks posed by errant or malicious UAS operations, the United States will continue to offer the safest and most efficient aviation system in the world.  As you can imagine, there’s considerable churn over this subject, and the public discourse needs to be robust—which is why I highlight it here. 

Congress is heavily involved with the drone issue, which I view as a positive sign.  As an agency, we appreciate some of the provisions in both Reauthorization bills.  The details of the provision in each bill are different, but both bills take the issues head on, particularly related to accountability and risk.  

There are a number of provisions regarding UAS safety.  As I said, Congress is leaning in here, and that’s helpful for all of us.  We look forward to Congress getting a long-term FAA bill finished so the FAA will have the appropriate tools to continue our work advancing safe drone integration.

I believe the next 12-18 months are critically important to integration.  If you’re an innovator or an operator, the FAA wants to work with you.  We’re heavily invested.  Drones are new to our airspace, but we’re in the business of handling the next big thing.  We’re used to new technology.  We have the best controllers, the best inspectors and the best technicians.  Other industries have asked us for insight on safety:  automotive; power; finance.  We’re good at connecting the dots, and we are equal to this task. 

I’m encouraged by the energy in this industry and the willingness of everyone in this room to work together. We’ve raised the collaboration bar to a new height—and we’re just getting warmed up.  We have obstacles, but none of them are insurmountable.  And in truth, I think the best is yet to come.