ROBOTICS AND AUTONOMOUS SYSTEMS
FAA: ‘Demonstrations’ Not Integration of Unmanned Aircraft in U.S. Skies in 2015
Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Herta was asked point blank by a senator if the agency intended to meet its congressionally mandated 2015 deadline to fully integrate unmanned aerial vehicles in national airspace.
Without answering “yes” or “no,” Huerta said that something will be happening by next year’s deadline, but it would most likely be some kind of demonstration.
“I believe we will be able to demonstrate safe integration and what is required for integration of unmanned aircraft. But out of necessity I believe it’s going to be staged,” he said Jan. 15 before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Huerta said later that the staged demonstration would provide information that would allow it to move forward.
“We are going to learn a lot as this technology grows at the exponential rates as it has been. As we learn more, we have to be willing to evolve and recognize that there will be different regulatory questions that we’re going to have and we will have to address them as we go forward,” he said.
In November, the FAA released a long overdue roadmap that provided a timeline for UAS integration. It stated that full integration was unlikely until the end of the decade. The agency also chose six test sites — 16 months past its deadline — where it will be able to gather essential data.
As senators and some witnesses criticized the FAA for its slow pace, and for lagging behind other nations in drone integration, Huerta spelled out the complexity of the issue.
“Today, this technology operates by exception in the national airspace system. And Congress has directed us, and the FAA is very focused on how do we integrate this technology into the airspace system and there is a wide scope of things we need to consider,” he said. There are a variety of platforms that have different applications. Each aircraft has its own performance specifications, Huerta said.
The safety of aircraft themselves, certification of operators and how UAS interact with other aircraft are three of the items the agency must consider, he said. The United States has a complex airspace with far more general-aviation aircraft in its skies than most others, he said. He predicted that once full integration occurs, there would be about 7,500 drones in the skies flying alongside manned aircraft.
“Essentially, what we need to get to is a regime where unmanned aircraft can operate in the same way that manned aircraft operate within the national airspace system,” he added.
The FAA received 26 applications from 25 states for the chance to host one of the six test sites. Alaska, New York, Virginia, North Dakota, Texas and Nevada were the winners. Huerta gave some hope to senators on the committee who expressed disappointment that their state was not named. The FAA by fiscal year 2015 will be choosing an academic center of excellence to carry out further UAS research.
“We are now turning our focus on toward developing what would be the agenda for the center of excellence,” he said. The selection process would begin later this year, and the site would be chosen by “the next federal fiscal year,” he said.