Google Executive: Relations with FAA and Drone Industry Improving

By Allyson Versprille

ATLANTA — Dialogue between the Federal Aviation Administration and the unmanned aerial system industry, which may lead to integrating the aircraft into national airspace, is improving, a Google executive said May 5.

“Honestly, the last month has been pretty inspiring in terms of what’s come out in the NPRM [notice of proposed rulemaking and] the dialogue that has evolved with the FAA,” Dave Vos, project lead of Google’s Project Wing, said during a panel discussion at an Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference. “I think we’re in really fine shape as long as we keep talking.”
Congress tasked the FAA with integrating UAS into the national airspace by September 2015. After missing several deadlines, the agency released a proposed small UAS rule — a piece of governance that will guide commercial drone pilots on legal operation — which was open to public comment through April.

Over the last two to three weeks there has been “dramatic change” and it is now possible to do more testing in the United States, Vos said.

“We today have the ability to do flying in many, many locations around the United States,” he said. “We need to continue to do that because this is the country that makes things happen.”

A short time ago, as Google looked around the world for countries where it could test its drones, the company became worried that the United States may not be the right location.

“Three of four months ago, we were a little bit concerned about how much progress we could make here in the U.S.,” Vos said. “But I really do have to say that I think what we’ve seen is a significant opportunity to work here in the U.S. by the FAA.”

The FAA has been repeatedly criticized by the commercial drone industry for what some perceive as foot dragging. The agency has countered that it is increasingly offering regulatory exemptions for select UAS operators.

During a March 28 panel discussion on commercial drones at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Robert Pappas, special rules coordinator at the FAA’s UAS integration office, said the agency had handed down nearly 250 Section 333 regulatory exemptions.

In March, Paul Misener, vice president of Global Public Policy at Amazon Inc. noted that the FAA had recently granted Amazon Prime Air a regulatory exemption to test a drone. But the exemption came so late that the drone was “obsolete,” he said during a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

“We don’t test it anymore. We’ve moved on to more advanced designs that we already are testing abroad,” he said.

Amazon — which one day wants to deliver packages via drones — is testing its aircraft in countries such as the United Kingdom, where the rules are much less restrictive, he noted.
David Vigilante, senior vice president of CNN’s legal division, said that progress is being made between the FAA and commercial drone operators.

“I do think we are reaching the tipping point toward the positive. Our own experiences have been very encouraging,” he said. CNN is currently using drones around the world to cover breaking news, including the recent earthquake in Nepal.

“Any incremental progress is a positive. I think it builds on its own momentum,” he said. “What’s exciting for us is … frankly really getting signals from the FAA that they’re willing to listen and want to tackle this problem with us.”

In order for the regulations to keep moving in the right direction, industry itself must begin offering solutions to the FAA, Vos said.

“The industry in this room; we need to be the ones that take responsibility. We need to be the ones that show up with solutions instead of saying to the FAA, to other aviation authorities, ‘How do we do this?’ and demanding that the FAA, the aviation authorities, tell us what to do. It’s not their responsibility,” he said.

Vigilante agreed that industry must take the reins if they want progress.

“I don’t want the definition of what’s possible to be informed by the imagination of a lawyer, and you know that’s who writes the regs,” he said. “The manufacturers have to dive in.”

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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