How the FAA is Getting it Right on Unmanned Aircraft

For the benefit of the flying and flown-over public, the FAA should not be harangued for being methodical and looking to established aviation companies for precedent. Let us recognize that a huge endeavor like boiling the technology ocean might take a bit longer than our congressional leaders projected in 2012 when they mandated unmanned integration by September 2015. The FAA and stakeholders comprising the special committees at RTCA, the technical advisory group to the FAA, are working the problem. If September 2015 slides right to October 2016, or January 2017, let us see if we can frame safe integration as a win, acknowledging that it took us a little more effort than we had originally estimated. After all, if we had put a man on the moon not by end of the decade but by the first year of the next decade, it still would have been a clear win for the history of flight.

Jim Williams, manager of the FAA’s Office of Unmanned Aerial Systems Integration, has correctly pointed out that while Congress directed the FAA to have safe UAS integration complete by September 2015, they did not exempt the agency from any of the procedures Congress itself put in place that govern the rulemaking process. Mr. Williams, since being named to this position three years ago, has made UAS integration a top priority for the agency, and the FAA is moving faster on this issue than it ever has before. Certainly we should expect—demand—that the FAA do its due diligence in crafting such monumental regulatory changes.

When the FAA made the giant leap in 2013 of announcing six UAS test sites, Mr. Williams’ team received 25 applications from 24 states, even though no federal money was designated for the sites. California Governor Jerry Brown’s Go-Biz team and Congressman Scott Peters deserve a great deal of credit for bringing together the leaders of the California aerospace industry to spearhead a late push to win a site for the state. Despite their best efforts, and the state’s long blue aerospace legacy, California did not receive approval for one of the initial six UAS test sites.

But for every cloud…

The lack of heavy federal oversight that came part and parcel with an UAS test site award created a bright opening for those left standing alone at the FAA UAS test sight dance.  As Dr. Mary Walshok, noted sociologist and Associate Vice Chancellor for Public Programs and Dean of Extension at the University of California San Diego, pointed out recently during an inspiring presentation at the University Club atop Symphony Towers, San Diego attracts bright minds. Some of the brightest in the history of aviation are gathered among the hills from North County to Northern Mexico. While other hills are full of crazies selling $10 certificates to hunt drones (and becoming relatively rich so doing), and commercial exemptions for UAS are flying at Mr. Williams from across the nation, the leaders of the aerospace giants are not chastising the FAA. The visionaries of the industry are looking beyond the life-limited economy of the small UAS commercial exemption. Visionaries like Neal Blue and Linden S. Blue can see a world where packages move themselves via cybersecure trucks, trains, ships, and aircraft, and—if Mr. Linden Blue’s vision is as clear as it has always been—a free world one day free from poverty and full of light and promise.