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'Here for Good'

FAA Administrator Says Drone Policy Moving to Next Stage as IPP Expires

With the UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP) to expire in October (see 2006150056), FAA officials stressed Tuesday that drones are moving to a new stage with long-awaited rules almost ready for release, during a virtual conference sponsored by the agency and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). The much-watched annual conference went virtual because of COVID-19, with sessions in July and this week, continuing Wednesday (see 2007080059).

Drones are “here for good” and are solving big problems, said FAA Administrator Steve Dickson. Drones helped address the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. “In many cases, we’ve enabled drone use for COVID-19 with our existing regulations and emergency procedures, as well as through special approvals, some in less than an hour,” he said. Drones were used to deliver medical supplies, prescription drugs and even library books, he said.

Air safety has to come first and is “the key to the future” for drones, Dickson said. “We don’t want setbacks,” he said: “We want to continue to progress.” Safety is why the FAA proposed the remote ID rule and will finalize it by year's end, he said. It’s why the FAA took a “proactive role” in advanced air mobility “working with industry stakeholders to identify challenges, gaps and areas for potential harmonization,” Dickson said. The experience being gained with drones is “helping to inform rulemaking and national and international policies,” he said.

Dickson said public acceptance of drones is critical to the industry's success. An Aug. 4 MLB game was delayed for nine minutes when someone flew a drone over a stadium in Minneapolis, he noted. On July 6, the National Transportation Board concluded that a collision with a drone likely caused a news helicopter to make a precautionary landing in Los Angeles last year, he said. “The public at large does not discriminate between the professionals and the pranksters, or the clueless, when it comes to safety,” Dickson said.

There are a lot of things going on,” said Brian Wynne, AUVSI president. With COVID-19, “contactless interactions are now a necessity and our industry can play from strength.” The unmanned aircraft system (UAS) industry “is here to stay permanently.” The IPP “had a number of operations that demonstrate the tremendous benefits that drones can offer,” Wynne said. The FAA is developing the rules industry needs “to unlock its full potential,” he said: “We really see an acceleration going on here at exactly the right moment.” The IPP has been a “really great learning experience and the experience we needed,” said Jay Merkle, executive director of the FAA Office of UAS Integration.

We have learned a tremendous amount,” said Earl Lawrence, executive director of the FAA Aircraft Certification Service. The FAA’s strategy was “do it first, write the rules second,” he said. The IPP highlighted risks that must be addressed, he said. “We now have a good understanding of how these aircraft actually operate,” he said. “We are now working on our durability and reliability rule so we can certify these aircraft at an appropriate level, so we can keep these operations going,” Lawrence said.

The FAA's future work will build on the IPP, Dickson said. “We need to refine our approach to really tackle the tough issues for scaling,” he said. One of the biggest challenges is beyond-the-line-of-sight operations, he said. “We want to make those operations more routine, we want to scale them and we want to make them economically viable,” he said.

Panels explored the use of drones in news operations and by public safety. Merkle said the states are turning to drones. North Carolina used drones “extensively in disaster relief,” particularly during hurricanes, he said. North Dakota uses drones during the spring flood season “saving lives and figuring out where the floods are,” he said. Kansas uses drones to inspect aging power lines, he said.