How an FAA Committee Aims to Accelerate Drone Integration

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The Drone Advisory Committee recently offered recommendations around Remote Identification, or virtual license plates for drones.

As more and more drones are approved to fly across American skies, critical questions will need to be addressed around unmanned aircraft technology, policies, and the future of airspace security—and that’s exactly where the Federal Aviation Administration’s Drone Advisory Committee comes in. 

Established in 2016 to advise the agency on key challenges and priorities around drone integration, the DAC saw its first transfer of leadership earlier this year. In a recent conversation with Nextgov, the committee’s newly-appointed chairman and another member who is also a drone policy expert, weighed in on the DAC’s latest priorities, its recent work to improve correspondence with the FAA and the members’ ultimate hope to accelerate the safe introduction of drones into the national airspace.  

“When you’re talking about putting flying machines in the air, you’re of course dealing with regulated air space, and so it’s a close partnership between the public and the private sector to be able to allow, and really empower the entire drone industry to move forward,” Chairman Michael Chasen said. 

Chasen, who is also CEO of the commercial drone and data company PrecisionHawk USA, joined the committee in 2017 and was named chairman in May. He’ll serve a two-year appointment in the role at a time when exciting developments and innovation are bubbling. He followed former Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, who served in the first rotation as the committee’s chair, and resigned in 2018.

The chairman noted that corporations didn’t really have a pathway to utilize unmanned aerial systems, or UAS, technology until August 2016, when the FAA published Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations to specifically govern “a broad spectrum of commercial uses for drones weighing less than 55 pounds.” 

“And once that happened, finally the gates opened up,” Chasen said. 

Around the same time, the Trump administration and Transportation Department launched the UAS Integration Pilot Program to support stakeholders in safely testing and validating advanced drone operations in partnership with local jurisdictions. Since then, commercial and public sector drone use has begun to blossom. And in the last month, the Postal Service announced it’s exploring introducing drones into its vehicle fleet and package delivery giant UPS was approved to operate the first national drone airline system that’s unlimited in size and scope. 

DAC meetings generally happen once a quarter and, during each one, various task groups share insight on specific topics that they were assigned to study in the previous meetings. As chairman, Chasen said he’s been working hand in hand with FAA to shorten the length of time it takes for recommendations to be shared and discussed, and also hone in the task groups’ focus on things that could rapidly speed up industry adoption and drone integration. 

“Both the fact that we have kind of shortened the length of time [it takes to get] feedback from FAA, and we are just starting to tackle some of these really difficult topics—I believe this is really going to accelerate the industry adoption of the technology even more,” Chasen said.

DAC member and drone policy expert Diana Cooper also shared details with Nextgov regarding research three of the committee’s task groups centered on during the last meeting, which convened in Washington on Oct. 17. The meeting was the second under Chasen’s leadership. 

One critical area of focus officials explored is Remote ID, which can essentially be thought of as a digital license plate for drones, so that officials can protect airspace from rogue drones and ensure friendly drones are only operating where they are meant to fly. In December, the FAA is set to release its proposed rulemaking on Remote ID, which will likely take two full years to implement. The Remote ID-focused group, Cooper said, looked at whether technology already meets standards to comply with Remote ID regulations, ways companies can be incentivised to comply ahead of the publication of the impending rule and also recommended that the FAA develop incentives for voluntary equipage.

“This group was so important to set up right now,” Cooper said. “We wanted to be able to move forward and address these security concerns today—and not to wait two years.” 

A separate task group focused on UAS security issues and highlighted technical efforts that could make drone operation safer and more secure. Cooper said one of the recommendations made by the security task group was for dorne manufacturers to adopt certain new features,  such as geofencing. As technical protection measures, geofences are essentially perimeters of areas entered into the software application—perhaps around airports, prisons, or other sensitive airports—where drones are not permitted to fly.

“The drone will actually hit a virtual fence and not be able to enter the area,” Cooper said. 

A third task group is focused on improving the Part 107 waiver process, which is the primary mechanism commercial entities have for conducting expanded operations until the FAA’s drone rulemaking is complete. Cooper also noted that, for the next meeting, the three tasking groups will turn their focus to improvements to facility maps with the goal of opening more air space, challenges regarding beyond visual line of sight operations and recommendations around the management of unmanned traffic. 

“I can definitely say the feedback around the table is that the [DAC] this year is tackling harder issues and being more responsive to the industry in a shorter time frame than we have in the past,” Chasen said. “So we are really excited about what we are going to accomplish this year.”

And though it’s still too early to measure the impact of the committee’s approach under Chasen, the chairman said he’s confident that the changes being implemented will ultimately enable the industry and government take the next step forward in drone integration.