The event wasn’t intended to resolve all of the issues facing the industry, but it was meant to get people talking.
On Tuesday, August 2, 2016 the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) held its first-ever “Workshop on Drones and the Future of Aviation.” The event, co-hosted with the AUVSI Foundation, brought together 150 leaders in the UAS community, ranging from commercial operators to academics and hobbyists to policymakers. The purpose of the event was to stimulate discussion of the future of this burgeoning industry—where is it going? And what does government need to do to help it get there?
Here are the four most important questions prompted by the discussions at the OSTP event:
1. The Administration has shown its high-level support for actions to promote UAS. How much can get done in the short time left in this Administration?
At the event, OSTP announced new steps to promote the safe integration and adoption of UAS. Key actions include $35 million in research funding by the National Science Foundation over the next five years to accelerate the understanding of how to intelligently and effectively design, control, and apply UAS to beneficial applications, a broad range of actions by the Department of Interior to use UAS to support search and rescue, and a $5 million “down payment” by the state of New York to support the growth of the UAS industry across the state.
Will we see a sea change as a result of November’s election? At this point, the goals appear to include an important achievable objective—releasing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on operations over people “by December.” [This is the MicroARC]
2. The need to take action on spectrum is real. How long can the industry survive on shared spectrum?
The necessary spectrum is already allocated, but there are no licensing rules in place, and the FCC has not yet been asked to create the necessary rules. For low flying and small UAS, the terrestrial wireless networks are a promising option. However, for higher altitudes and larger UAS, there will simply be no way for that important part of the UAS industry to command and control their aircraft at high altitudes or beyond visual line of sight.
The built-in lag for processes at the FCC on these kinds of issues can stretch to three years. Although long-range operations cannot happen until the FAA adopts its own rules, which is still a year or more away, it would be a shame for the industry to be strangled by lack of access to spectrum when it does receive the FAA’s authority to fly higher and further.
3. After spectrum, UAS Traffic Management (UTM) is one of the most daunting challenges. Will a “hands off” approach really result in an “internet of the sky?” Or will it lead to a format war?
As the UTM concept evolves, particularly for larger UAS, the FAA and industry are wrestling with some basic, existential questions about what the role of the regulator should be in managing traffic. The consensus amongst all players appears to be that the regulator should do the minimum necessary to allow the industry to flourish, but what does “minimum” mean here?
Will industry be capable of building an “Internet of the sky” without more direct regulatory intervention in standardizing formats? Or will this lead to a model where several different incompatible formats jockey for dominance in traffic management—and, if so, what are the implications for safety and convenience?
4. How will the potential tensions between federal and state authority be resolved?
The FAA has exclusive jurisdiction over safety in the navigable airspace. But the development of small UAS raises a host of questions (some legal, some practical) about how the FAA’s authority should be applied to this new technology.
Because they operate at lower altitudes (and because there are potentially many more of them), local jurisdictions face pressure to assert more control over these devices than they have over manned aviation. At the same time, the need for nationwide, uniform safety regulation appears just as critical in the unmanned world as it is in the manned world.
How will this tension shake out? The FAA’s Fact Sheet on state and local authority has provided a degree of clarity, but does the agency need to do more in order to clearly draw the lines of responsibility in a way to promote UAS growth
As we noted at the time, the Workshop laid out an ambitious agenda. This article is by Joshua Turner, Anna Gomez, and Katy Ross, three attornies with the Washington DC law firm of Wiley Rein, two of them partners. If you don’t know the firm, and I didn’t, they state that Wiley Rein has the largest Telecom, Media & Technology (TMT) law practice in the country with more than 80 attorneys and engineers engaged full time in the practice – which includes UAS.
I like this article because though it expresses the positions somewhat differently, it reflects many of the same things that I write about that will impact the development of the industry. Though frankly, I had not considered what the impending change of administration could do to all of our hopes and dreams – I suspect that is one difference between DC and Taos.
There are a lot of good things happening as a result of the spectrum repacking which will unleash the wicked fast “millimeter wave” radio spectrum, or wavelengths above 24Ghz that will be known as 5G. At minimum this is essential for BVLOS and one suspects for things like deep learning swarms and other yet to be invented things.
From where I sit, and admittedly there is some naïveté about the ways of DC, the UTM initiative seems to be well underway and comparatively safe. In addition to the endorsement coming out of this event, Provision 2208 in the just signed FESSA bill specifically tasks NASA and the FAA to continue this work.
However, this is the first I have read about how the drone traffic is to be regulated. Right now there are competing technology systems in various stages of development, but I had not extended that to actual regulation. I suspect that this is a very complex issue because at some level it will have to be integrated with the FAA NextGen ATC system. Which leads to the recently failed but not for long departed AIRR initiative which would stand up a new organization to manage the ATC. Quite the kettle of fish.
Which brings us to the question of the growing tensions between federal and local regulation which I find something to write about pretty much weekly. As I have written repeatedly, whether it’s good law or bad, the patchwork quilt is here to stay. There are a number of reasons:
• Drones are a highly visible manifestation of society’s frustrations and anxiety about privacy, cyber security and all of the other trappings of modern times. There are any number of polls, all 50-70% negative on drones and privacy. This is a global opinion is one of the great threats to the future of the industry. The FAA is clearly not in the privacy business, and the recent NTIA voluntary guidelines are toothless and so offer scant comfort.
• Drone operations start and end pretty much anywhere – and at least here in the US, almost never at airports.That puts drones in people’s faces in new and intrusive ways. And creates a whole host of issues that for the most part have no parallel
• The FAA has shown very little will and has no practical ability to enforce the laws that are in place. This is not a criticism, it was nothing they were ever tasked to do. Which doesn’t change the fact that their inability puts the pressure on the states and localities to quiet the irate citizenry and protect our first responders from “jackassery”. I am not a lawyer but it seems to me that the trick here is to find a way for drones to remain under the FAA, while removing some of the protections enjoyed by manned aircraft.