The Key to UAS Integration
Collaboration with the drone industry, state and local governments, and the public is the key to successfully integrating drones into the national airspace system, federal officials said this week at the nation’s biggest technology trade show.
“Let’s figure out the right balances,” Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy Finch Fulton said at CES in Las Vegas, where Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration officials discussed the challenges of drone integration.
Fulton and Earl Lawrence, executive director of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office, participated in a discussion about drone innovation. The topics included the new UAS Integration Pilot Program and the work of the Drone Advisory Committee.
Fulton opened the discussion by explaining the Trump administration’s “revolutionary approach” in the pilot program. Initiated late last year, the program facilitates partnerships between “lead applicants” in industry and state, local and tribal governments. The partners will work with the FAA to test ideas for advanced UAS operations that currently are heavily restricted.
The city of Palo Alto, Calif., for instance, recently outlined two proposals involving the Stanford Blood Center and Palo Alto Airport. The blood center wants to work with the UAS provider Matternet to deliver blood samples on a designated flight path to and from Stanford Hospital. And the airport is eyeing a partnership with Multirotor to explore ways to integrate drones and manned aircraft while avoiding airfield conflicts.
Fulton said the pilot program is designed to identify “reasonable time, place and manner restrictions” on drone operations. As an example, he said research through the program could reveal that the best way to integrate drone deliveries is to conduct the operations at night.
“Instead of just imposing rules and figuring out ways to say no,” Fulton said, “we come to the public and try to figure out ways that we can say yes and to enable this innovation.”
Lawrence said the pilot program is essential in a world where aircraft are more personal in nature, sometimes flying from people’s palms, but operate in a complex airspace system that evolved over time. The program will pull together experts who know how to achieve safety in their particular realms of expertise in order to develop a “safety culture” for drones.
“We’re having to relearn how we did that almost a hundred years ago now and fit it into the processes,” Lawrence said.
The Drone Advisory Committee is part of that collaborative effort, too. The DAC membership includes representatives from the drone industry, local government, academia and other aviation interests. “It’s our opportunity to reach out and get a good cross-section of individuals who are affected by this new technology,” Lawrence said.
A drone pilot who was part of the panel discussion praised the FAA for successfully integrating drones into the national airspace during last year’s hurricanes in Florida, Texas and the Caribbean. Taylor Mitcham, the “chief drone ninja” at Florida-based SkyNinja, was among the pilots who received emergency FAA authorizations to fly in disaster-stricken areas.
“The FAA had a great response,” she said. “A lot of times we got instant airspace authorizations in a lot of areas that were very critical, especially with our cell-tower inspections that we were doing out in the Florida Keys.”
Lawrence made clear that the FAA is eager to safely achieve that kind of integration on a broader scale by engaging with industry. “We all want to serve the community. We all see the benefit,” he said. “We’re learning together.”