How the FAA is Getting it Right on Unmanned Aircraft

While many opportunistic high-tech small UAS startups and delivery companies are clamoring to see regulatory lines drawn hastily in the air, the large established companies that have been building safe and stable aviation systems for generations are not. Those institutions understand that the space between inspiration and regulation is where innovation happens. They also recognize that it takes time to get it right; it takes time for regulation to catch up to innovation. Historically, and appropriately, we innovate, and then we regulate.

“The industry really can’t wait for the government to get around to coming up with the rules,” says Brandon Suarez, an engineer at General Atomics Aeronautical who is an industry-recognized point man for large UAS integration. “Industry is coming forward with technology, with an answer, with a solution, and the regulations catch up.” The innovators are innovating. The regulators are regulating. So who is clamoring? Not the stable aviation institutions.

The stable players that make up the aerospace economic engine that helps drive the regional economy in Southern California and Northern Mexico are working hand-in-hand with regulatory agencies, and will not be heard lambasting our government in the press. According to James Zortman, Sector Vice President for Northrop Grumman Corporation, “The technology is here today… and unless [the social and regulatory pieces] are addressed, they threaten to derail an industry that one day could probably rival—if not surpass—manned aviation.” Companies like General Atomics and Northrop Grumman are working the problem. Carefully. Methodically. Just like they build aircraft and stable companies. They are working the problem with the kind of focus that puts a man on the moon by the end of the decade. And they are addressing unanticipated hurdles with the same kind of creative passion that brings three men safely home from space in a makeshift life raft.

While working the problem, the UAS sector is looking to commercial aviation for precedence and guidance. Todd Emerson, General Counsel for SkyWest Airlines, gave this clear counsel to the aerospace sector gathered for the 2014 Air & Space Law Symposium at California Western School of Law: “When [UAS] rules are being written, make sure they are written right the first time, because they don’t tend to change. The rules [commercial aviation has been] living under today are 50 years old, and they do not reflect the current status of the commercial aviation industry.”