Jim Williams is the FAA’s Manager Flight Standards Service – Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Office. In that position he is responsible for the formulation of the UAS policy for the agency. The above picture shows Mr. Williams speaking to the Drones, Data X conference in Santa Cruz. There he made the following statement, which was well received by his audience:
“…the FAA is working as fast as it can to enable legitimate drone uses—as long as it can keep people safe. Primarily, the FAA cares ‘if you can see your aircraft, if you can see other aircraft, and you can get out of the way,’” says Williams.
Even greater enthusiasm was sparked when he intimated that the next generation of first person view goggles (FPV; like the two above views) could meet the FAA’s requirements. Technically the existing systems provide too narrow of a view; the goal is to give an equivalent level of peripheral vision as a pilot typically has. Beyond that Mr. Williams is seeing progress in developing sensors which will create a field of detection for aircraft in both the lateral and rear quadrants of the UAS.
The GIZMODO headline suggests that there may be a relaxation of the Part 107 line of sight restrictions at last? Soon? That forecast of a time frame may be ambitious. Mr. Williams said at the same conference that processing the 3+ thousand comments, reviewing the original NPRM and preparing a revision to the original rules ordinarily takes 16 months and the FAA senior executives have set a goal of something less.
The regulatory safety process and technology do not move at the same speed. The risk-taking entrepreneur and the safety- regulating civil servant have different tolerances, capabilities and capacity for consequences from expediting their respective services.
The gestation period for a run-of-the-mill new rule is measured in years and the mean for such projects verges on five. The steps from concept conception to final promulgation has many, contentious steps which are not visible to the public. When expanding the operational rules, there are/may be added levels of risks to be considered and the assessment of that diminution of the margin of safety must be subjected to rigorous analyses, including a cost/benefit review for which the problems are measured in hard numbers (damage to persons and property) and benefits estimates with more subjective information. The Office of the Secretary of Transportation and the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs tend to scrutinize and rescrutinize the figures. That consumes time.
To add to this quandary, the UAS technology will not necessarily follow some ordered schedule of new inventions. Each time some new important tool is brought to market, SOON THEREAFTER, it will be expected the FARs will have to be revised to match this advance. This iterative process will keep the FAA regulators’ in boxes filled with requests to expand the UAS operations in incremental fashion. That irregular process is certain to add to the regulatory delay.
There have been recent criticisms about the deliberations which lengthen the NPRM process and much of the complaints have focused on the delay in updating the Part 23 certification standards. Perhaps the solution may be a Congressional consideration of when and why an expedited administrative procedure could be justified in their FAA Reauthorization efforts.
Mr. Williams is working hard to keep refining the draft Part 107. It may be (likely) that the rule-makers will not be able to keep current with the escalating technology of UAS vehicles and their systems. The Congress has exercised considerable oversight over the FAA’s UAS efforts; a constructive response to this problem may be to adjust the mandated procedure by which the FAA assures safety.