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The 2016 FAA UAS Symposium: What Happened?

Logan Campbell -- Logan@Aerotas.com

Regulation is a key topic to consider when planning any commercial drone operation. There is a lot of complicated, controversial, and often contradictory information about what is and is not legal for commercial drone use. The FAA is keenly aware of these challenges, leading them to hold a two-day symposium in Daytona Beach this week. Over the course of the event, there were dozens of often heated discussions about almost every aspect of UAV regulation imaginable. Below are some of our key takeaways from the conference.

 

Major changes to current Commercial UAV rules are coming soon, which will make operations easier

The FAA has been planning a major overhaul to regulations concerning small UAVs, generally referred to as Part 107. However, most of the details have yet to be announced. At the symposium this week, the FAA reaffirmed their target release date of this June, and most in the industry agree that this is realistic, though it may take weeks or even months for the rules to come into effect. Though there were no formal announcements, sources indicate that the legal requirements for commercial operators will be significantly eased. The new rules will lower the requirements for operator licensing, from a full pilot’s license to a simple knowledge test. We will have to wait until the rule is published to see exactly what the requirements will be, but one thing is clear: commercial operations will become much easier.

 

The FAA has not YET figured everything out

One of the major themes of the symposium was that the FAA is committed to listening, and they seemed very genuine. A number of the discussions made clear that, although they have a plan for June's Part 107, many of the rules that address future technologies have yet to be written. Further considerations, such as flying beyond line of sight, integration into higher altitudes, and delivery, will still be illegal under Part 107. The FAA does not know exactly how they are going to safely allow these crucial UAV operations. Thankfully, they are willing to listen.

 

The FAA is changing to be nimbler in its rulemaking

According to the FAA Director of UAS Integration, “This ain’t your father’s FAA.” The rapid pace of innovation and the proliferation of drone technology has forced the FAA out of its normally slow-moving procedures. Traditionally, the administration could take 10 years to implement new technology, making sure that every possible danger and impact was tested again and again. Drones have challenged that, by making it so easy to fly that rogue operators are flying into the national airspace by the thousands. The only way to handle this flood of new operators is to adjust, and be willing to continue to adjust. The FAA has shown they are willing to do this through the committees on registration and flying over people, and it looks like they will continue to be flexible and take new approaches in the future.

 

A lot of Commercial UAV stakeholders are still very upset, and for good reason

Even though the FAA is working hard on new rules (for which we commend them), the current rules leave a lot to be desired. They are cumbersome, inconsistently implemented, contradictory, and do not even have the result of making UAV operations as safe as they should be. Even the planned rules will not resolve many concerns. Some requirements will be too great, preventing perfectly safe and legitimate operations. Other requirements will be too weak, allowing people to add risks to the system that should not be allowed. Balancing safety against opportunity is a difficult challenge, and the pressure that stakeholders put on the FAA helps them make informed decisions. Constructive criticism and informed debate are a critical part to helping improve the whole system.

 

Safety is a big deal. No, really, it’s THAT important

The FAA is a broken record when it comes to safety. We hear about safety from every FAA official speaking, and we hear it from every flight attendant and pilot on an airliner. Safety is simply a part of the FAA’s DNA, and it pervades everything that they do. Safety takes precedence over everything, including business opportunities. While this can be frustrating to commercial operators, it does help us understand the motivations driving the FAA and predict what they will do going forward. Too many rules, and people will break them. Too few rules, and accidents could happen. The FAA is looking for the right balance to maximize safety. This diligence is, after all, what allows airlines to be the safest form of transportation.

 

So what does all of this mean for the commercial UAV industry?

Altogether, the commercial UAV industry is moving in the right direction. The FAA, while certainly imperfect, has done a lot over the past few years to make new rules, and they have changed their approach to do so quickly and effectively. More transparency in what Part 107 will include would be nice, but altogether they are doing a great job. We at Aerotas are proud to have been a part of this Symposium and are excited to keep pushing the progress of UAV legislation, while getting drones safely into the hands of more operators as fast as possible.

 

Have any questions about how Part 107 will impact your commercial UAV operations? Leave a note in the comments below or drop us a line at info@aerotas.com.  

 

Logan is the founder and CEO of Aerotas. He graduated from Harvard Business School in 2015 and brings experience in a broad range of industries, including agriculture, real estate, and finance. A lifelong tinkerer and avid UAV enthusiast, Logan also has hundreds of hours of flight experience over a broad set of different UAV types.