Viewpoint: New Proposed Drone  Rules Enhance  Airspace Safety

The FAA’s mission is to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world. That mission has long relied on promising new technology. Around the world, drones are inspecting critical infrastructure, delivering medical supplies and consumer goods, and spraying crops. But policymakers and regulators in the U.S. have not kept pace with the technology, and the industry has not yet been allowed to bring these benefits to the American people at scale.

Recognizing that drones represent the future and that their safety, environmental, efficiency and security benefits for the American public are significant, the FAA recently chartered a committee to explore rules needed to further integrate drones into the nation’s airspace. This month the agency hosted a public meeting to discuss the committee’s recommendations. 

The U.S. leadership in global aviation depends on our nation’s ability to enable this innovation safely, and other countries (including China) are quickly moving ahead of us. As a former pilot and safety regulator, I have a unique understanding of airspace safety. Implementing the committee’s work to enable and integrate drones is crucial now more than ever. 

The FAA charged the committee with overcoming a key barrier to scaling this technology: the agency’s current prohibition of flying drones Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS) of the operator. This restriction significantly limits what we can do with drone technology safely and efficiently here in the United States.  

The committee’s report recommends a clear and comprehensive regulatory approach that will unlock substantial benefits safely. The committee’s work yielded extensive recommendations, but one is particularly important to overcoming the BVLOS hurdle: encouraging all aircraft to adopt technology to identify themselves. This technology—automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B)—for crewed aircraft in shared airspace would enhance safety for all aircraft while opening up low-altitude airspace to BVLOS drone operations for the benefit of the American public.

ADS-B technology uses satellite signals for precise tracking of aircraft. This means that an ADS-B-equipped aircraft can broadcast its positions electronically so the aircraft is visible to other aircraft in the airspace. By broadcasting a precise location, the ADS-B equipped aircraft is easier to avoid and safer than unequipped aircraft. The FAA already mandates that aircraft broadcast out ADS-B signals as a prerequisite to fly in most controlled airspace.  

Recognizing the shared and collaborative nature of the airspace, the committee proposed adjusting the right-of-way rules in low-altitude airspace to depend on whether a crewed aircraft is ADS-B-equipped. Low-altitude airspace—below 400 ft.—is most commonly where drones operate and where crewed aircraft are less likely to fly. The committee's proposal makes ADS-B equipage for crewed aircraft below 400 ft. optional. In most instances if a crewed aircraft is ADS-B equipped, it has the right of way—the drone will be responsible to yield to and avoid it. Requiring the drone to yield is manageable because the crewed aircraft’s ADS-B signal gives the drone a way to “see” that aircraft electronically. If a crewed aircraft is not ADS-B equipped, however, its pilot will be responsible for seeing and yielding right of way to drones. 

By encouraging (but not requiring) any crewed aircraft flying at low altitudes to have ADS-B, safety and efficiency are enhanced, and drones are able to perform important low-altitude BVLOS operations. This is a win for the FAA’s mission, and a win for the American public—and the FAA should move forward expeditiously on implementing this recommendation.  

The benefits of enabling more advanced drone operations and improving safety for all aircraft vastly outweigh the costs of expanding equipage. Current FAA regulations prohibit flight below 500 ft. for most crewed aircraft unless they are in the vicinity of an airport. The proposed amendment does not impact the majority of crewed aviation, including virtually all airline operations and most of general aviation. Major helicopter operators (such as emergency medical/rescue flights and oil and gas helicopters) long ago embraced the tremendous safety gains that ADS-B provides. Agricultural, light sport and experimental aircraft are quickly adopting ADS-B. 

ADS-B technology is widely accessible, small, easy to install and relatively cheap. Variants of ADS-B that are specifically designed as low-cost alternatives for gliders and other light aircraft are now readily available and easily affordable. 

Aviation is evolving faster than ever, making room for new kinds of aircraft, new kinds of pilots and new ways of growing the future of flight. Other countries have moved quickly ahead to integrate drones, and the U.S must keep up. The committee’s right-of-way solution facilitates innovation that accommodates all users of the airspace. The FAA, with support from Congress, should work to implement it as quickly as possible.  

Dan Elwell is former deputy and acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration and has served as a military and airline pilot.