FAA Misses First Unmanned Aviation Deadline

By Stew Magnuson

Only five days after the acting administrator confidently affirmed that the Federal Aviation Administration would meet its goals for integrating unmanned aerial vehicles into national airspace, the agency let a congressionally mandated deadline slip. 

The Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 required the FAA to establish a pilot program to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system at six test ranges. The law required the sites to be established “not later than 180 days” after the passage of the FAA bill, or Aug. 12. No plan has been released as of early September.

“Rest assured that the FAA will fulfill its statutory obligations to integrate unmanned aircraft systems,” Acting Administrator Michael Huerta said at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference Aug. 7 in Las Vegas.

The FAA must be able to accommodate unmanned aerial systems in the national airspace by 2015. The test sites are envisioned as places where remotely piloted aircraft can fly with few restrictions, and crucial data on the technologies that will allow them to travel among regular air traffic are gathered. One of the main issues is how unmanned aircraft will sense other aircraft and take corrective measures to avoid collisions — better known as sense-and-avoid systems.

“We expect to ask for proposals to manage these sites very soon,” he said. When pressed to answer “how soon?” he declined to give a date.

When asked what happens if the two technical issues are not resolved to the FAA’s satisfaction by the congressionally mandated deadline in 2005, Huerta declined to elaborate.

“I don’t really want to speculate on hypotheticals that we won’t get there because I am quite optimistic that we will,” he said.

The lapse generated an Aug. 20 letter addressed to Huerta and Department of Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood, which was penned by AUVSI President and CEO Michael Toscano.

“Key to unlocking this potential and ensuring the U.S. remains a global leader in UAS technology is the establishment of the six FAA test sites around the country. This is a critical step in the process toward the safe and responsible integration of UAS into the national airspace by 2015,” he wrote.

“I write today to request that the FAA open the site selection process without delay, so we can remain on the congressionally mandated schedule,” Toscano said.

A few hours after Huerta spoke in Las Vegas, a panel of four analysts who keep close tabs on the UAS market were asked if they shared Huerta’s optimism. All four said “no.”

“I think industry feels comfortable with the progress being made with sense-and-avoid technology, but I am not sure how comfortable the FAA is,” said Phil Finnegan, director of corporate analysis at the Teal Group.

Mike Blades, senior industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan, rattled off about five different programs and approaches that are trying to solve the problem. There doesn’t seem to be any unity of effort, he said.

“There is no one way of doing it. Everybody is trying to answer the question, and I don’t know if they all know what the question is. ... Everybody wants to solve sense and avoid, but they are all attacking it from a different direction.”

Derrick Maple, principal analyst at IHS Industry Research and Analysis, said he agreed that the technology might not be ready, and pointed out that the rules and regulations that must be rewritten are also a factor. He described the rules for flying aircraft in general as “archaic” and “complex,” and adding remotely piloted aircraft into the mix makes it even more so.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto, Defense Department

Topics: Aviation, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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