[NOTE I have merged three articles.]
“We intentionally brought these distinct cultures together, and I’m not going to spend any time trying to convince you to change your mind. But what I’m asking you to do is to consider that you have very distinct viewpoints, and balance those viewpoints.”
The new Drone Advisory Committee (DAC) held its inaugural meeting September 16 in Washington DC.
In his opening remarks FAA Administrator Michael Huerta set the stage saying that “Some members of the committee hail from the traditional aviation community where safety is a paramount focus; others come from the entrepreneurial community, where taking risks and making bets is in your DNA.”
He added: ““We hear from pilots all the time” about the potential dangers of drones in America’s airspace, he said. “We also hear from those of you who say, ‘You’re holding us back.’”
“A safety culture is by definition a cautious culture, because no one wants to screw up that safety record,” Huerta said. “The culture of drones, though, is an innovation culture. What we want to use the advisory committee to do is to have a public forum where these issues can be debated, they can be discussed and play a significant role in this societal evolution of what do we, as a country, want.”
It’s essential, Huerta said, that the committee come up with concrete guidance for regulators — and soon. “The FAA cannot afford to move at the speed of government while the industry is moving at the speed of Silicon Valley,” he said.
The fault lines among the 35 leaders of private industry, trade groups and government on the committee were apparent from nearly the beginning of the daylong session, but officials stressed that the goal of Friday’s meeting was to come up with a to-do list.
The DAC’s objectives for the first year include:
- Understanding the current plans of the FAA to achieve full integration,
- Advising the FAA Administrator of the gaps in those plans,
- Reaching consensus on a five year plan for the FAA.
Al Secen, vice president of aviation and technology standards at the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) and secretary of the DAC presented the results of a survey of DAC members about their thoughts on the committee’s priorities.
Most committee members said their first priority is to have full integration to NAS. The biggest technology concerns were collision avoidance, cybersecurity, spectrum, electronic signatures, and big data management.
The biggest public perception issues were safety and privacy. No members thought that privacy would be regulated in the future by the FAA. Instead, the committee said that privacy should be under the jurisdiction of other agencies.
By the end of Friday’s meeting, the DAC agreed to form two working groups to take on:
The apparent disconnect between the FAA preemption authority over all airspace and the lack of FAA authority to deal with the misuse of drones (other than unsafe operations).
Certification/approval of aircraft to fly over people and beyond visual line of sight.
This was never going to be an easy task. If you look at the members it is the quintessential old guard – who have lived with and under the FAA for their entire careers and whose lives and the lives of their passengers are on the line; and those who in some cases had hoped never to have anything to do with the FAA.
Despite the comments from certain quarters that the committee is not diverse enough, I think that there are enough points of view represented to make getting to consensus difficult. And it is not like the working committees can’t reach out to others, in fact one hopes that they will.
The million dollar question is, will a few negotiators emerge who can move the committee towards something more substantial than what the registration group and the ARC group managed to accomplish. Oh look, many of the usual self-serving suspects are aboard from the UAV side, not an encouraging sign.
Perhaps the most telling comment came from Robert Isom, the EVP and COO at American Airlines. He urged the committee members — especially those start-up companies who were “still building business models” — to remember, “Airspace isn’t free. Any work done by the committee has to be done with the understanding, ultimately, of the price tag that’s involved.”
It reminds me a great deal of Mark Dombroff’s quote from an interview he gave in January 2015 where he said, “A lot of people will wake up and realize that this isn’t a business they can necessarily afford to be in, given how regulated it will be.”
This brings up what is both the ultimate goodness of Mr. Huerta’s approach and the supreme irony. The aviation industry has been decades in the making. It is based on regulation and standards. It is one of the penultimate examples of global public-private cooperation. It is an industry that has been saving lives, counting sea otters, delivering medicine and a great deal more for decades.
In contrast, the UAV industry is still mostly about a hope and a dream. Yes, there is no doubt that many #dronesaregood. That there is enormous potential. And that it is the future. But I for one applaud the forbearance of the establishment and their willingness to explain the “facts of flight” to the new guys.
One suspects that Mr. Huerta has learned a few lessons himself.