Top Article Throwback, 2014: Look At FAA Aviation Safety Seines May Help To Understand Their Historic Blockages To An Immediate UAS Rule

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The report by the FAA of this incident near Tallahassee brings into focus the tension and almost conflict between the burgeoning UAS industry and its future regulation. The FAA program manager, Jim Williams, speaks with almost horror at telling the story of March 22 near miss. He spoke to a hall full of attendees at the Small Unmanned Systems Business Exposition in San Francisco. All of the people listening to him have visions of the infinite potential of their UAS to create new businesses, to use their platform to benefit society in numerous ways and to transform how business would be done. The bow wave of expectations is tsunami like. The man standing in front of you and speaking the FAA’s perspective has a very different view.

It might help to understand from whence the FAA comes. It has relied on multiple systems to assure safety. That historic construct may be the impediment to the UAS industry evolving as the private sector would like.

Here is a brief description of the seines upon which the FAA has relied. Since this agency was authorized,

  1. every person, who operates an aircraft has been subjected to detailed licensing testing—knowledge of flying, comprehension of the rules, ability to fly and capability to follow flight instructions; the FAA can trace every pilot in the skies;
  2. every company, which operates for “compensation” (a court tested term which is quite broad, must undergo extensive, must undergo exhaustive examination as to personnel, procedures, policies and practices; the organization is subjected to surveillance and held to the highest levels of safety; it is held accountable through civil (including revocation of its authorities) and criminal sanctions;
  3. every aircraft, before it may fly, is subjected to exacting, comprehensive analysis of its aerodynamics as measured in every potential phase of operations, of all of the onboard systems (control, instrumentation, communications, automation, navigation) and of its interaction with the ATC;
  4. every individual flight is subject to either altitude restrictions or to positive control by ATC; in any event, each vehicle is marked with a distinct, readily readable number;
  5. the majority of flights starts at an airport with a tower which integrates their operation within the ATC. All flights above a standard altitude are identified by the ATC radars.

That is a pervasive regulatory scheme which maximizes the FAA’s ability to regulate all flights, companies and pilots. The comprehensive nature of this scheme is necessitated by the agency’s statutory safety mandate. These highly motivated federal employees are reasonably confident that they can and will protect the public. The above recitation suggests the bulwark of regulatory systems that is the basis for the FAA’s current high safety performance has worked and creates confidence among the regulators. There is a level of psychological comfort that derives from that virtually omnipresent system.

The UAS concept, particularly the small vehicles, presents the potential to avoid all of these regulatory seines. Thousands of the smaller UAS versions exist today and can take off anywhere, literally. At the low altitudes the small vehicles are not within the sight of radars nor can they be marked for identification. Surveillance of these aircraft are literally beyond the eyes, ears and ken of the FAA regulators. Their applications and operations avoid almost all of the systems with which the federal government is comfortable.

At the same time both the small vehicles and the larger, witness the Tallahassee near midair, pose real safety risks. Now the FAA has to try to define a safety regime which puts the UAS genie back in the bottle and which satisfies the demands of this exciting industry. As mentioned above, commercial operations are both broadly construed and statutorily mandating higher safety standards. How to recreate some or all of the five seines listed above is a problematic issue for the FAA?

The certification aspects might be imposed on the larger/higher UASs, but how to surveil the operations poses a real quandary. Those puzzles clearly are consuming so long as the statute and thinking are static. So long as commercial operations must be held to a more exacting standard, the FAA cannot liberalize its restrictions. Are there alternative methods which might allow a substantial threshold in terms of operations yet not act as an economic barrier? Perhaps the FAA test sites will provide some useful new ideas. Maybe the FAA could issue an exemption to establish some real world experience, particularly as to the smaller UASs.

This requires out-of-the-box thinking, something for which the agency staff is not well known. As pointed out by the OIG, safety regulation tends to be conservative and rely on tested methods. The irresistible force of the economics of this new business is hitting the immovable object, the FAA’s traditional reliance on multiple systems to protect the public. Both sides have valid considerations, but without some creative suggestions from the two antipodes or the intercession of some third party, the current stasis is likely to persist. If both sides try to understand their respective positions, perhaps some win/win solution will appear.

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