Speed and Transparency Needed for Civil UAS Use
A version of this article appears in the May 26 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.
The level of tension between the unmanned-aircraft community and the over its ban on civil UAS was clear when the agency announced it will consider using special legislation to authorize limited commercial operations.
The statement at the industry’s biggest annual gathering, in Orlando, Fla., this month, was greeted with a mixture of elation, suspicion and derision: elation from those seeking safe integration of UAS into civil airspace, derision from those demanding immediate access to U.S. skies. And suspicion from both sides—those with experience with the FAA who doubt the regulator’s ability to deliver anything quickly, and those with no experience in aviation who question its legal right to regulate their activities. The FAA has the potential to disappoint all sides.
The legislation that gives the transportation secretary authority to approve UAS use limits it to operations that pose no hazard to other airspace users and the public. From making movies to spraying crops and inspecting pipelines and power lines to oil and gas flare stacks, operators are cueing up for early approvals. These are roles now performed by humans, helicopters and airplanes—sometimes at great risk. So the safety case for using UAS is solid. But the hundreds, possibly thousands, of would-be commercial operators champing at the bit will still have to wait for the FAA to grind through its rulemaking gears, which could take another two or more years.
Meanwhile, the agency’s interaction with a frustrated civil UAS community is limited to wagging a finger at unsafe operations, slapping cease-and-desist orders on “illegal” operators and fines on reckless fliers, and defending those bans and fines against legal challenges. All the while, the FAA hides in the labyrinth of rulemaking when asked important questions.
Under the law, the agency cannot engage in a meaningful discussion with UAS manufacturers, operators, the public and other interested parties until it has issued a notice of proposed rulemaking. But thousands of small drones—the word is appropriate here—are being sold over the counter, most for recreation but some for commercial use. The horse has left the stable. Now is not the time to bolt the barn and stand guard over an empty stall.
This stand-off is doing the FAA and UAS industry nothing but harm. We are at the beginning of a new era in aviation and the regulator is correct to want to get its rulemaking right the first time. But it is also a time for transparency: A new industry is being born, and it sees the FAA as an opaque, obstructive, bureaucratic dinosaur. This is not the way to begin a relationship that must endure for decades to come.