Dec. 15, 2014

On Dec. 10, lawmakers on Capitol Hill expressed frustration with the slower-than-mandated rollout of commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) during a hearing of the House Aviation Subcommittee, but government officials and industry stakeholders remained steadfast in their methodical approach.

Congress mandated that the FAA have a plan in place to fully integrate UAS by September 2015. However, earlier this year the FAA missed a key deadline for that plan, introduction of draft regulations on the operation of small UAS in the national airspace system (NAS).

Those rules were to be introduced in August, but will not be released until later this month at the earliest. During the Dec. 10 hearing subcommittee officials expressed concern that lack of such guidelines may allow other countries to take the lead on UAS implementation.

“Safety is paramount, and the challenges are difficult, but if there is a country that is up to the challenges of safe UAS integration, it is certainly the United States,” said Subcommittee Chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-2-NJ).

Matthew Hampton, assistant inspector general for aviation audits at the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General, noted that although many of the required UAS milestones have been accomplished, “the FAA is behind on the act’s remaining requirements” and will not meet next year’s deadline.

FAA Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety Peggy Gillian countered by reaffirming the agency’s commitment to safely integrating UAS above concerns about missed timetables. “The United States has the safest aviation system in the world, and our goal is to integrate this new and important technology while still maintaining safety as our highest priority,” she emphasized.

As a burgeoning industry awaits formal regulations governing UAS operations in a variety of roles, NBAA Director for Air Traffic Services and Infrastructure Bob Lamond expressed support for the more measured approach.

“We certainly understand that a wide array of operators, including many within the business aviation community, may feel frustrated with the deliberate pace of this rollout,” said Lamond, who also serves on a the FAA UAS Aviation Rulemaking Committee tasked with making recommendations on the regulatory structure of large UAS in the NAS. “However, this data-driven approach with safety in the forefront will benefit all UAS operators in the end.”

The hearing was accompanied by the announcement that the FAA had granted exemptions to four additional companies to operate UAS for work in the construction industry and oilrig flare inspections. These companies joined six Hollywood operators that received exemptions in September.

Lamond recently attended the annual UAS Technical Analysis and Applications Center Conference sponsored by New Mexico State University. The meeting attracted hundreds of participants to hear briefings on and discuss the thousands of different types of potential applications for the myriad UAS platforms now available.

“The energy of this group was infectious over the two days of meetings and briefings,” Lamond noted. “Everyone is anxious to see the commercial applications of UAS happen. While frustration with the pace is evident, no one at the conference wants this done incorrectly.”

NBAA’s position on UAS integration has long been consistent: given that safety is always the association’s top priority, it is imperative that any introduction plan for UAS be thoughtful, deliberative and focused on safety. This means UAS should not share the same airspace with manned aircraft unless they meet the same certification and airworthiness standards as manned aircraft, including the ability to take timely directions from air traffic control, and to sense and avoid other aircraft and UAS. Additionally, NBAA opposes any steps taken in introducing the aircraft that would reduce or restrict access for business aviation to airspace or airports.