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Intelligent Machines

FAA Head: Government Must Go Faster Than Normal to Cultivate the Drone Industry

The technology for unleashing drones may be ready, but the government says it needs more data.

The U.S. government has a reputation for being slow, but when it comes to crafting commercial drone policy, it’s under pressure to pick up the pace.

“This is an industry that is moving at the speed of Silicon Valley,” Michael Huerta, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, said at a drone policy workshop held Tuesday at the White House. “We at the FAA know that we can’t respond at the speed of government.” First, though, it needs more data.

Drone technologies are indeed evolving fast, and the range of potential valuable commercial applications is massive. New rules that go into effect later this month will open the door to certain low-risk, low-altitude commercial applications for small drones, like inspecting rooftops or cell phone towers. But without special exemptions companies still won’t be able to fly their drones over crowds of people, at night, or even beyond the vision of an operator. That limits the potential for using drones to do things like deliver packages to homes or medicine to disaster areas.

At the event on Tuesday, the White House announced research partnerships with academia and industry collaborators, including one with Alphabet, which will test delivery drones and “build toward beyond line of sight capabilities.” This comes on the heels of a delivery drone testing agreement reached recently between Amazon and the U.K. government.

Amazon, which has been promising delivery drones since 2013, has been critical of the FAA’s pace. And some policy experts say that if the government doesn’t move faster, it could squander the country’s chance to become the international leader in this fast-growing industry.

But the U.S. has some of the most congested airspace the world, and it is home to lots of aircraft like crop dusters and helicopters that fly at low altitudes, says Benjamin Trapnell, a professor of aerospace sciences at the University of North Dakota, where he researches drone operations and safety. For drones, the FAA must now apply some very strict safety regulations that are meant to minimize the risk of collisions between conventional aircraft.

One of those regulations requires that the pilot of an aircraft be able to “see and avoid” other aircraft to avoid a midair collision. When there is no pilot in the vehicle, how should this be done? A range of sensing technologies under development, from advanced digital cameras to sophisticated radar systems, could give commercial drones the ability to detect moving objects. Software can be used to automate how the vehicle responds when it senses certain signals. The FAA and NASA are also working on an air traffic control system for drones.

But even if these technologies are ready, the FAA’s responsibility is to assure not only that drones are capable of flying safely but also that they will reliably do so. And before it can develop new safety standards, it needs more data from drones operating in the real world, said Jim Eck, assistant administrator for the FAA’s NextGen program, which is responsible for modernizing air traffic control, at the White House event.

The FAA envisions a regulatory policy that “moves in layers” as it collects more information, Eck said. The first layer is the set of new rules for commercial drones that will take effect this month. How the administration adds other layers will be influenced by data generated by drone operations that get waivers to go beyond the scope of those rules to do things like at fly night or beyond the line of sight, said Eck. Huerta said that by the end of this year the FAA hopes to propose a new rule that addresses flights over crowds of people.

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