The fact that we’re all here is a testament to the enormous influence unmanned aircraft have had on our society in an incredibly short period of time. Think about it: who would have imagined a couple of years ago that a group this diverse would be gathering for a panel discussion about drones at South by Southwest, of all places? But here we are, and I’m looking forward to what I know will be a productive and illuminating conversation.
The theme of today’s panel is the future of small UAS. But before we get there, I want to talk a bit about where we are today, and how we got here.
We’re not even three months into 2016, but we have already made significant progress on several important initiatives: a robust registration system, a MicroUAS aviation rulemaking committee, and a successful No Drone Zone campaign for the Super Bowl, just to name a few. When I say we have made progress, I mean all of us, working together, in fruitful and productive partnerships.
You know the old saying that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts? That couldn’t be truer of the work that we’re engaged in. The wide array of industry representatives here today underscores that while we may sometimes have different opinions and ideas, we’re all coming from essentially the same place: we all view safety as our top priority, and the safe integration of unmanned aircraft is a goal that we’re committed to pursuing together.
A couple of months ago, I was doing an interview with a reporter about UAS registration, and I teased him for scoffing at our registration plan when we first announced it last fall. When I did that interview, in early January, about 182,000 hobbyists had registered their UAS. Today, that number has more than doubled, to nearly 400,000.
That’s really quite remarkable, and we are very encouraged by these numbers. I think we all see registration as an important educational tool. It is a way of letting operators know that as soon as they start flying outdoors, they are in effect pilots. So one way of looking at the registration numbers is that our shared safety message has reached hundreds of thousands of operators. We are helping them understand what it means to fly safely while welcoming them into the safety culture that has been embedded in traditional aviation for more than a century.
We have a successful registration system because we – the FAA – knew that we couldn’t, and shouldn’t, go it alone. We set up a diverse task force to develop recommendations for what the system should look like.
The task force members demonstrated the commitment, creativity, drive and humility that we expected as they tackled this daunting challenge. I say humility because with this kind of process, it’s rare that everyone gets exactly what they want. Yet the task force came out with consensus recommendations that reflected the members’ willingness to compromise in pursuit of a common goal. The end result is that hundreds of thousands of people have absorbed our safety message because we all worked together.
Some of our registration task force partners joined us in early January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas for a press event to provide updates on the registration process and other initiatives. A few of us were chatting afterward and someone suggested that the registration task force was so effective that we should do something similar to develop rules for MicroUAS. This wasn’t the first time we had heard this suggestion; a number of people advocated a separate “micro” classification in comments they made on our proposed small UAS rule.
The idea was that we shouldn’t treat all UAS the same. Some–might be carved out and considered differently because they would pose less of a hazard due to their size, shape, weight or materials.
Well, we listened. Late last month, we announced that we are setting up an Aviation Rulemaking Committee to develop recommendations for how we can safely allow certain UAS to be operated with people below. Our goal is to create a performance-based regulatory framework that addresses potential hazards, rather than a classification that is based only on weight and speed.
This is a notable departure from how we have traditionally approached safety, and it reflects our firm belief that being flexible and open-minded is key to successfully integrating new technologies into the world’s busiest, most complex – and safest–aviation system.
The UAS registration task force was the model for this rulemaking committee, which now includes more than two-dozen aviation stakeholders.
Among them are UAS manufacturers, UAS operators, researchers, airline and general aviation pilot organizations, and many others. The committee began meeting last week and will issue its final report on April 1. After we review that report, we will draft a proposed rule that I’m confident will reflect the rich array of perspectives offered by the committee.
Speaking of new rules, we expect to have our small UAS rule finalized this spring. As most of you know, this rule will allow for routine commercial operations of small UAS within certain limitations. It will, for the most part, eliminate the need to issue Section 333 exemptions on a case-by-case basis, and it will open up access to the national airspace system while maintaining today’s high safety standards.
Our partners in industry, government and law enforcement also were instrumental in helping spread the word that the airspace around Levi’s Stadium in the San Francisco Bay Area was a No Drone Zone during the Super Bowl. Among them were UAS manufacturers, Know Before You Fly, local airports, the FBI, NORAD, Levi’s Stadium, the San Francisco 49ers, the NFL, tourism bureaus and others.
I can tell you that without exception, everyone we contacted enthusiastically pitched in to help get the word out, immediately asking, “what do you need from us?” I’m happy to say there was not a single instance of a drone violating the airspace restrictions around the stadium during game-time. (I wish I could say the same about manned aircraft – four pilots intruded into the restricted airspace and were intercepted by fighter jets, which I understand is not a particularly pleasant experience.)
We have a host of other initiatives under way or planned. And in that regard, I have some news to deliver.
You’re probably familiar with our free B4UFLY smart phone app, which lets pilots know whether it’s safe to fly in their current or planned locations. We introduced it for limited beta testing last August and in January made an updated iOS version of the app available for the general public.
Today, I am pleased to announce that the Android version of the app will also be publicly available later today, also free of charge. There are currently more than 35,000 people using B4UFLY, almost all of them iOS users, but now users of virtually all smart phones will have access to it, which we believe will help heighten public awareness about what it means to fly unmanned aircraft safely. The Android version includes a lot of updates based on feedback from beta testers, like a much more user-friendly flight-planning feature.
This app started as an effort by the FAA to help UAS users know, in real-time, about where it is and is not safe to fly. I’m proud that the FAA has taken this leadership role. The public and our stakeholders expect us to pave the way in aviation safety outreach and education, and we will continue to do so. But I also see B4UFLY as another opportunity for us to expand collaboration with industry.
So I’m committing today to create a framework for the app’s programming and logic to be available to the general public. We recognize that getting B4UFLY into the hands of people like you, to give you the opportunity to include it in your own operating systems or mobile platforms, is the right approach to ensure drone operators receive the best safety guidance available.
The fact is, safely integrating unmanned aircraft is never going to be a finite process where one day we’ll sit back and say, OK, our work is done. We have to constantly evolve in our approach so we can accommodate innovation while maintaining the highest levels of safety.
I have said more than once that innovation moves at the speed of imagination and that government has traditionally moved at, well, the speed of government. And when you’re a safety agency like the FAA, a methodical and deliberative approach is necessary.
But at the same time, we are working to change the traditional speed of government – when possible–by anticipating what’s coming next and maintaining a flexible regulatory approach. Remember that ad from the 1980s with the tag line, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile”? Well, we’re trying hard not to be your father’s FAA.
That theme is that we have been finding our way forward through partnerships–with industry, with government and with law enforcement. I can say with certainty that the path in front of us will continue to be paved with the same kind of partnerships that have taken us to where we are today.
Integrating UAS has been a fascinating and energizing journey, and I am confident that by continuing to work closely together, we will benefit from the virtually limitless potential this segment of aviation brings to our increasingly connected society. And we will do so as safely and as expeditiously as possible.