NEW ORLEANS—Former Cisco CEO John Chambers delivered a keynote on Tuesday at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) XPONENTIAL conference, slamming the Obama administration for moving too slowly on adjusting regulations governing commercial and private drones.
Chambers said that Obama doesn’t “get” drones and that the US is potentially being left behind in a market that he claimed could drive trillions of dollars in economic impact. His remarks drew loud applause from the audience of attendees—many of whom represented companies eager to cash in on drones as either vendors or customers.
Federal Aviation Administration administrator Michael Huerta responded on Wednesday with a talk about the FAA’s progress on drone regulations before the same audience that Huerta had previously called “a lion’s den” in his last appearance at AUVSI’s flagship conference four years ago. But, he joked, “We’re getting to know each other so well that UAS conventions are getting to be like family reunions.”
However, Huerta’s comments made it sound less like a family reunion and more like an intervention. The FAA chief gave a litany of reasons why his agency was moving so slowly and then tried to make the most out of what the agency had done. Then, in what almost seemed like a peace offering to Silicon Valley, Huerta announced the formation of an as-yet-to-be-named drone advisory committee to be chaired by Intel CEO Brian Krzanich. Aside from having connections to many companies in the drone industry, Krzanich is also a private pilot.
Huerta explained that the new committee, which will come under the auspices of the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA), will first be tasked with establishing priorities. “We have a lot of big issues we have to deal with,” said Huerta. “Is bandwidth (for control) a bigger issue, or do we have more lead time for that versus technologies for detect and avoid, or how we protect core infrastructure?”
The announcement was met with polite applause. However, Ars informally polled some audience members after the speech and many still held feelings of resentment toward the Obama administration’s apparent lack of action. The steps being taken by Huerta come at the 11th hour for the administration, and some audience members commented to Ars that nothing would get done unless the next administration takes the same sorts of steps that other countries have taken to accelerate innovation around drones.
Part of the perceived foot-dragging is just the way the rules-making process is designed, Huerta said. “We recognize that we have to find the right balance to ensure safety while encouraging innovation,” he told the AUVSI audience. “The world around us is evolving at warp speed, and we have to stop moving at the speed of government.”
But the FAA’s speed has also been impeded by caution created by a string of incidents. “A lot of things have changed since 2012,” Huerta explained. “In 2012, there were thousands rather than hundreds of thousands of drones. In 2012, nobody was flying drones near airports. Nobody was shooting down drones over their homes. Nobody was crashing a drone into the trees near the White House.”
Huerta announced that a new legal interpretation of regulations by the FAA would allow students and faculty to fly drones without having to obtain a special waiver from the FAA, making academic drone flights under supervision (and within line-of-sight) possible without an application process. So far, the FAA has approved 5,100 UAS operators to fly under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization Act with case-by-case waivers. And Huerta emphasized the successes of the Pathfinder programs, now a year old, including CNN’s trial program of safely operating drones in urban environments above people on the ground for news-gathering.
Huerta also highlighted the drone registration program launched in December, noting that more than 443,000 hobbyists have registered their drones online since registration was introduced. The online process is now being opened up to commercial drone operators applying for Section 333 waivers, ending what he called “the legacy paper process.”
But that process is still being tightly controlled, and operating anything above hobbyist-size drones currently requires a civil aviation pilot’s license. Huerta also promised that rules allowing the operation of drones under 55 pounds without a pilot’s license—currently a requirement for all uncrewed aircraft beyond hobbyist-size drones—would be finalized by “late spring.” The draft of the rule, called Part 107, would allow these “small” UAS systems to fly within “unaided visual line of sight,” under 500 feet altitude, in daylight.
Huerta said the new rule would be implemented “soon,” but could not give specifics. For many, “soon” can’t come soon enough, as they see the US being left in the contrail of other nations’ drone efforts. An unscientific survey of the AUVSI conference’s expo hall speaks to the impact of the FAA’s plodding progress—the vast majority of the exhibitors of civilian uncrewed aircraft on hand were from China and Europe, with the US contingent dominated by defense contractors.
Source: ars technica