How the FAA Rules might move at the Speed of Drones

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Technology and the regulations designed to ensure safety of innovation share neither the same vision/mission nor the same timetable. This premise is nowhere more evident than the vexing problem between drone nation and the FAA. The process required for the FAA safety organization to translate incipient ideas for controlling these virtually omnipresent vehicles into legally effective rules will consume years. To exacerbate this time schedule, the regulator in most cases, only articulates rules for what is known. Trying to force escalating technology through the rubric of NPRMs threatens to deter the growth of this expanding aviation segment. Plus, the incongruity of regulatory “strictures” which trail market realities contributes to the general sense among UAS operators is that the FAA is both out of touch and incapable of enforcing these antiquated rules.

The underlying rationale/excuse for noncompliance is unacceptable, but frequently as with public perception, those views constitute a reality with which the FAA and industry must address. Here are a few procedural/legislative options which may help bring the two into synch:

  • Amend the FAA’s rulemaking statute to expedite the time required to implement the UAS rules— This might reduce the lag between technology development and effective regulations. If one were to create a PERT chart and assess the delay, it is likely that the tardiness might be attributed to the “help” from the Office of the Secretary of Transportation and OMB. Those locations are also the preferred venues for lobbyists who may disagree with the rule being reviewed.PERT-Chart
  • Write the UAS regulations in prospective compliance terms— The current Part 107 proposal is based on the current state of the drone technology development. Because “sense and avoid,” a means of identifying specific UAVs and a perspicacious beyond line of sight vision system are not operational yet (though some are in promising stages of development), the pending NPRM has limitations due to the risks in the absence of these safeguards. To account for the present rules-trailing-technology state, the FAA should consider setting standards to which future equipment could comply and for meeting those criteria, the operator could be granted the operating privileges associated with those safety enhancements.p11
  • Rely on the SMS concept of operator-specific strictures— Part 107 reflects the old FAA regulatory principle of a one-size-fits-all approach. The beauty of an SMS approach is it builds off of a foundation and uses actual operating experience/data and the precise method of compliance is adjusted. The missions and operating environments of UASs are almost infinite. The one-size-fits-all tactic is difficult, if not inapposite, to such a range of flights. The strictures appropriate to agricultural drone operations should bear little resemblance to the Ops Specs for urban deliveries. SMS would adjust the safety precautions to the specific needs and abilities of the UAS flight organization-type of equipment, competence of the “pilots,” capability of the crew to recognize situations/to learn from errors/etc., existence of safety culture, operating environments, etc. This would not mean the need for an infinite number of approvals; for as witnessed by the 333 exemptions, the operators would tend to cluster around “classes” of Ops Specs packages. In any event, an SMS-based approach would minimize the need to issue a general rule for every technology enhancement. The regulations could keep up with innovation.p22

These are a few ideas as to how the UAS industry and the FAA might design better mechanisms which will both facilitate a higher level of safety and bolster UAS commerce. Equally important for the regulator, the competence of the current rules would add to the confidence of the drone nation in the need and value of the FAA rules.

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