Drone Integration and Regulatory Acceleration – An Interview with FAA Acting Administrator Dan Elwell

dan elwell
FAA Acting Administrator Dan Elwell

Earlier this year, Dan Elwell, the Acting Administrator of the FAA, talked about the FAA being “open for business” in terms of how the agency wanted to actively collaborate with drone industry stakeholders. It was a message that was personified in an even more palpable manner with the announcement of the 10 Integration Pilot Program (IPP) winners, which is set to provide a model around how drone technology can be integrated in a safe manner in a variety of applications.

These developments are just the most recent examples of how the FAA has shifted their approach and position around the technology in recent years, and that shift continues to intensify under Administrator Elwell’s leadership. While he would be the first to tell you that he’s simply pushing along concepts and work that came before his current tenure at the FAA, it’s an effort that is especially critical due to the ramifications for operators and entire markets.

To get a better understanding of how he wants to enable these opportunities for drone technology in the present and create options around future applications, we caught up with Administrator Elwell for an in-depth interview. In this candid conversation, he explained the importance of the FAA embracing performance-based criteria, why remote ID is so critical, what he’s most proud of from his current tenure at the FAA and plenty more.

 

Jeremiah Karpowicz: How has your aviation background directly and indirectly impacted the approach you’ve taken in your roles at the FAA? 

FAA Acting Administrator Dan Elwell: Everything I do in the aviation context is always from an operator’s bent. That’s how I came into the industry, and I’ve spent the majority of my time flying in the system, whether that was on the manufacturer’s side or with Airlines for America, and even goes back to my time in the military.

The other thing that I come to FAA leadership with is a sense of the mission being the central focus. In all of my roles, there’s always been a clear and firm mission, and I think it’s how I work best. You’re never in doubt about the mission in the military, and in the FAA, we have one mission, and it’s safety. We talk a lot about the efficiency of the NAS, but safety has primacy. We’ll never sacrifice safety for efficiency.

It’s nice to have a job where your mission and mandate are that clear.

 

That mandate was a flashpoint for criticism from some drone industry advocates not too long ago, but the FAA’s stance around what it means to operate drones in a safe manner has changed in a big way over the last couple years. What’s ultimately driven that change?

The biggest change the FAA has made, particularly for regulating new NAS entrants such as drones, is fully embracing performance-based criteria to shape regulation development, just as we have done with manned aviation.  FAA engineers and policy experts used to require operators and manufacturers to do something very specific before we would approve them to operate. This approach was effective, but it was slow. Over the last decade, the industry, as a whole, has made significant technological advancements, and the shift to performance-based criteria – the aircraft must be able to do X, Y, or Z under these conditions – enables the aviation industry to seek out multiple, creative solutions to tackle the same problem.

The bottom line is that the FAA does not have all of the answers. The fast pace of innovation and technological improvements mean we must regularly engage with the industry experts for solutions, rather than be prescriptive about what we think they should do.

 

That focus on performance criteria feels as if it’s at the heart of the UAS Integration Pilot Program. What were some of the other things you wanted to see from the IPP?

I’m really proud of the IPP program. It’s very well suited for what we need to do, which is demonstrate in a not too narrow way how drones can be used. But we also wanted to do a couple important things within that.

First off, we wanted to see operational diversity, but we also wanted to see potential policy and regulatory diversity. In other words, there’s been a big discussion about how much the FAA should control, and how much should be left in the hands of localities. It’s why we wanted state, local, city and tribal participants. We wanted to see a diverse group and make those government entities the lead on the projects to determine how the operators and regulators can work at a community level. That’s what the IPP does.

By watching the limits they put on these operations, and gathering the data to see what we can learn both operationally and policy-wise, we think these communities will be able to define sensible time, use and manner restrictions. We just want to make sure that we strike the right balance between what’s good for the community, for the industry, and for public safety.

 

Given the variables that are inherent with such issues, do you have any concern that some of the rules that come out of this initiative might be too narrow and only applicable to certain types of users in specific regions of the country?

Future drone regulations will need to be broad enough to address general operational and safety requirements and will be applicable across the country. However, how they are implemented will require local level coordination – the same way we do it today for manned aviation. For example, commercial airlines take off and land at airports across the U.S. every day. The FAA has policies, procedures, rules, and regulations that stipulate how this is accomplished. However, the actual execution of local operational procedures is designed in conjunction with the local community around the airport. Thus, citizens have a voice at the table about issues that are important to them.

Ultimately, what we want is some sort of standard or overarching rule(s) with broad applicability that can be tailored by the local community. To illustrate this further, let’s look at other aviation contexts. Medi-vac helicopters operate under certain rules and regulations set forth by the FAA. However, the local jurisdictional authority provides additional guidance on where they can take off or land for routine operations. We envision the same dynamic for drone operations.

The same construct applies when we talk about unmanned traffic management, or UTM. We will look for a UTM governance structure that has broad applicability across the country for low-altitude drone operations, although the actual implementation may be tailored by the locality. In fact, because the technology is so new, we expect there will be different technological approaches to UTM that will still address the requirements set forth in the governance structure. But, I envision one approach to UTM will end up being the “UTM of the land.” Imagine if you drove from state to state in your car, and some states required you to drive on the right, while some required you to drive on the left. It’s easy to see how a common UTM framework must be established so we are all operating from the same basic starting point.

 

The IPP is also set to work through what makes sense for regulation related to BVLOS operations, and that’s been a major talking point for commercial users of all types and sizes for years now. Is BVLOS the most frequent topic you hear about when it comes to drone regulation? 

Personally, I am answering more questions about flights over people than BVLOS, but they’re both critical for the future of the industry.

BVLOS is much more critical in terms of command and control and mission authority, and who’s doing what. To achieve full integration into the airspace that will make BVLOS a reality, you’ve got to completely solve sense and avoid capabilities, which is the underpinning of aviation. Period. Sense and avoid is the principle upon which aviation became what it is today. So if you can’t see your aircraft, you need to solve that dilemma.

When you’re talking about flights over people, it’s more about privacy and security. We’re still trying to work our way through that. We need universal remote identification. We have to have robust sense and avoid technology. All of those have to be there for both flights over people and for BVLOS.

 

Thinking of sense and avoid capabilities along with remote ID as enablers for these capabilities is something I’ve talked through with some other industry experts, but it sounds like you see them as not just being enablers, but requirements for these operations.  

They’re requirements, absolutely.

The FAA is hoping for a substantive change to the law that’s commonly referred to as Section 336, which is the modeler’s exemption. There’s a lot to that exemption, but a key piece is that it prohibits us from putting regulations in place on modeler drones. Just lifting that would be helpful, because regardless of what side of the fence you’re on, the modeler drones are the same drones that people are using and want to be using for a variety of commercial and non-model applications. If they’re operating in or near other drones and aircraft, we’ve got to be able to understand who they are and what they’re doing.

Across the land, law enforcement has understandable concerns about distinguishing between friend and foe up in the air as drones start to proliferate. We cannot create a regulatory environment for integration, which is where everyone wants to get, if we have an entire population of drones that can’t be identified or tracked.

 

Your message of the FAA being “open for business” permeated the industry, and it received a great deal of positive response. What does that phrase mean to you though? Does it mean increasing awareness for the resources on the FAA Drone Zone? Or enabling direct contact with the people involved in the IPP? Or something else? 

It’s a little bit of all those things. It’s about communicating the sense that we’re open to collaboration with the industry and people should come work with us.

We’ve reached the point where technology is moving so quickly and the capabilities are so far beyond what the government can foresee or do itself, that we have to acknowledge government might not always have the solution. Industry could have those solutions, and it often does. What’s important to remember as well is that many in the UAS community don’t come from an aviation background, and that can sometimes be tremendously helpful when it comes to out of the box thinking.

Safety has been a collaborative effort for decades, and with the shift to a performance-based regulatory regime, we need operators to bring us their safety cases. Not their business cases. Their business cases will take care of themselves if this industry is going to grow. We want them to show us how they’re going to safely operate their drone so that we can understand it and regulate accordingly.

 

What are some of the results you’re most proud of when it comes to enabling commercial operations for professionals that want to take advantage of UAV technology?

Again, I’m proud of what the IPP turned into.

When I first got started advising the Secretary in February 2017, the IPP concept was originally focused on reaching out to local communities to determine what kind of restrictions should be in their hands versus how much the FAA should own. It started as more of a policy/legal construct.

What I’m proud of is that both the FAA and the Department of Transportation recognized the limitations of that kind of initiative, and then began to look at the IPP construct as something much different. We wanted to let the communities and the applicants be creative, and to reward different operational constructs. We wanted to let the time, use and manner restrictions part of it play out, but not let that be the governing structure of the IPP. We wanted to let that be more of a byproduct. So I’m proud we were able to do that.

Secondly, I’m proud of how quickly we were able to make it happen, especially when compared to how the FAA normally does things. In one year’s time, all 10 participants will have begun operations in some manner, which in terms of an aviation pilot program, is pretty darn quick. I’m really proud of the teams at both the FAA and Department of Transportation that pulled this all together.

Lastly, I’m both proud and excited to see what these different programs are going to be able to do. From the application to control a mosquito population with UAS to the one working through what it will mean to deliver life-saving medical equipment, there’s a great variety of operations and I’m looking forward to seeing them through.

 

Pulling us back to the present, if I’m someone who wants to utilize drone technology to make a bottom line impact for my business in 2018, but I think that regulation has made doing so too onerous to explore or even consider, what would you tell me? 

I’d tell you not to despair.

We have Part 107, which is the foundational regulation, and for many simple operations, that’s all you need. But we also have the flexibility to issue waivers and exemptions as long as you make the safety case, and we’ve granted those over and over again.

I would encourage anyone who wants to take to the sky to connect with the countless people across the country who are already doing it, and find out from them what it means to operate a drone in a safe and legal way. Know Before You Fly is just the beginning of the resources that are out there. The people at our test sites have been working things out for 4-5 years now, and they’re excellent sources of information as well.

Right now, we have over 1,000,000 registered drones. Over 230,000 of those million drones are registered commercial drones, and we also have over 100,000 remote pilots. It might seem an onerous regulatory environment, but these numbers illustrate how the technology is being used to make a difference today, even though they don’t even begin to tell you the whole story around the possibilities for the technology that exists right now.

 

What do you mean by that?

We had 149 applicants for the IPP, but for the majority of the ones we didn’t select, we responded to them with a note to let those applicants know that they can already do what they had applied to be in the program for. There’s a lot more in the way of possibilities than many realize.

It might seem like there’s a lot that is still on the drawing board, but if you think about it, we’ve come a long way already with putting drones out there.

 

 

 

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About the Author

Jeremiah Karpowicz always envisioned a career as a screenwriter, but found the autonomy and freedom he was looking for in the digital space. He has created articles, videos, newsletters, ebooks and plenty more for various communities as a contributor and editor. He has also worked as the Executive Editor for ProVideo Coalition where he was first introduced to UAV technology. You can get in touch with him on Twitter: @jeremiahkarp

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