Analysts Doubt FAA Can Meet Unmanned Aircraft Obligations
The acting administrator said in a keynote speech at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference that he was confident that the FAA will meet its obligations.
"I am very optimistic that we will get there," FAA Acting Administrator Michael Huerta said. Congress earlier this year mandated in the agency's reauthorization legislation that small unmanned aircraft, up to 55 pounds, be fully integrated into national airspace by 2014 and the larger versions by 2015. "Rest assured that the FAA will fulfill its statutory obligations to integrate unmanned aircraft systems," he added.
"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.
When asked later in the day, during a panel discussion, whether they believed the administrator's comments, the four participants shook their heads and gave and emphatic "no."
The main roadblock will be ensuring drones can sense and avoid other aircraft, they said. The FAA will insist that the aircraft be able to both detect an oncoming airplane, and take corrective measures to not collide with it. Industry and the government have been working on this problem for a number of years, but a satisfactory solution has not been found yet.
"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 looking at the problem. There doesn't seem to be any unity of effort.
"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. At last year's conference, an air traffic controller said during a similar panel that every page of their rulebook will have to be rewritten to accommodate the technology.
Ron Stearns, research director at G2 Solutions, said this all may be a moot point unless a market emerges for the kinds of services UAVs can provide. There are a lot on niche applications for unmanned aircraft, but the potential market is "hyper fragmented," he said.
"Unless you have a true demand pull in the marketplace, I'm not sure it matters right now," Stearns said.
One of the most talked about markets is for police agencies, which want inexpensive overhead surveillance capabilities. However, Congress forced the FAA in May to allow law enforcement to use UAVs weighing up to 25 pounds, as long as they don't climb higher than 400 feet and remain in the line of sight of operators. The 2014 deadline will allow operations of the aircraft up to 55 pounds and at higher altitudes.
The market for medium and large UAVs, the ones that would fly among passenger traffic, is less clear. They cost several million dollars, and would be out of reach for most local public safety agencies.
Photo credit: Army