House Committee Discusses Future of Flight

On Thursday, March 30, the Subcommittee on Aviation under the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee met to discuss the evolution of flight and its implications for FAA Reauthorization. The subcommittee explored the evolution of flight in both unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft through discussions with two panels of experts.

Panel 1:

  • Adam Woodworth, Chief Executive Officer, Wing
  • Roxana Kennedy, Chief of Police, Chula Vista Police Department
  • Stuart Ginn, Medical Director, WakeMed Innovations, WakeMed Health and Hospitals
  • Catherine Cahill, Director, Alaska Center of UAS Integration, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Panel 2:

  • Kyle Clark, Chief Executive Officer, BETA Technologies
  • JoeBen Bevirt, Chief Executive Officer, Joby Aviation
  • Christopher Bradshaw, Chief Executive Officer, Bristow Group Inc. On Behalf of the Helicopter Association International
  • Clint Harper, Advanced Air Mobility Expert and Community Advocate

While UAS aircraft such as drones have been around for a decade, their certification has been challenging and their allowed use cases limited. Certification obstacles have delayed the deployment of eVTOL aircraft also. Understanding how to efficiently integrate these two flight technologies into the National Airspace System (NAS) without compromising safety and security will be an important part of FAA reauthorization, which will begin towards the end of 2023.

Unmanned Aerial Systems:

UAS can have a variety of applications, as the witnesses on the first panel testified. Adam Woodworth spoke to Wing’s experience delivering light packages using drones. Roxanna Kennedy spoke to her Police Department’s use of drones in their Drone First Responder (DFR) program, allowing her understaffed department to respond more tactfully and effectively to emergency calls. Dr. Catherine Cahill spoke to her experience testing drones at the Alaska Center of UAS Integration (ACUASI) and the potential to increase access and save lives in Alaska where 82% of communities are only accessible by air during some parts of the year; infrastructure monitoring activities (visually examining pipelines for encroachments or leaks) can also be done safer remotely. Dr. Stuart Ginn spoke to his experience with WakeMed delivering blood products and test samples to labs, with the potential to bring AEDs and other necessary medical supplies to remote areas and those with limited access to transportation.

All four witnesses expressed limitations in the current deployments of their technologies due to regulatory challenges. Through their testimony, they provided the following recommendations to congress to better integrate UAS into the national airspace system:

  • Direct the FAA to establish a clear and objective target level of safety for drones as they have done for other categories of aircraft. (Woodworth)
  • Direct the FAA to adopt a declarative certification and design approval approach for small UAS, modeled after the agency’s existing light sport aircraft certification process. (Woodworth)
  • Extend the FAA test sites authorization for another five years at the seven current test sites; they expire on September 30, 2023. However, the program should focus on providing more funding to the seven existing sites instead of expanding the program with new test sites, as the already established program has a proven safety record. Current authority allows the seven test sites to bring additional operational areas across the country into the already established test site program. (Cahill)
  • Extend the FAA’s BEYOND Program past its current expiration date of October 25, 2024. The BEYOND program launched in 2020 to address the remaining challenges of UAS integration. (Cahill)
  • Codify the US Code 44803 C waivers that are beginning to allow test cites to conduct civil operations to assist companies in meeting the test and evaluation requirements for drones under 300lbs to become type certified. This can be emulated for drones over 300lbs in the future. (Cahill)
  • Extend the Alliance For System Safety Of UAS Through Research Excellence (ASSURE) Program for another 10 years to leverage existing experience and provide the universities associated with ASSURE greater cost match relief. The current 1:1 match is prohibiting greater participation in the program. (Cahill)
  • Expand the FAA’s counter-drone authority beyond the airport environment to prevent interference with the safety of the national airspace system. (Cahill)
  • Update the current rules and regulations to allow more drones to enter the airspace but avoid starting these regulations from scratch. (Cahill)
  • Provide the FAA with the research exemption to allow the purchase of foreign made drones for destructive testing during counter-drone system tests. The FAA needs to prove these systems are effective in removing all drones, not only those manufactured in the U.S, that are being flown in a nefarious or hazardous manner without risking safety and NAS security. (Cahill)
  • Provide greater feedback during the application process for Certificates of Waiver and Authorization (COAs) as it is often unclear what needs to be corrected in a rejected application, limiting new entrants. (Kennedy)
  • Include the recent approval of the Digital Visual Observer as a standard option for COAs, removing the remote pilot in command requirement. (Kennedy)
  • Instruct the FAA to recognize and incorporate the concept of dynamic risk. Lifesaving drone operations that reduce loss of life can be considered in conjunction with the risk of their aerial operations. (Ginn)
  • Include a funded pilot program that would enable further testing, evaluation, and deployment of beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and highly automated deployments. (Ginn)

Advanced Air Mobility: Transforming What it Means to be a Small Aircraft

Developments in Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) are leading towards the innovation of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft with use cases for delivering cargo, and eventually the movement of people. The four witnesses on the second panel expressed obstacles similar to those faced by the UAS industry: a lack of regulatory clarity makes it challenging to innovate and move towards certification. In order to assist in that process, the panelists provided the following recommendations to Congress to keep in mind as they draft FAA reauthorization legislation:

  • Simply put, the industry needs a “regulatory unblock” and clarity. The technology is here and ready, but regulations are preventing their use. (Clark)
  • Direct the FAA to continue to provide a reliable environment for companies looking to commercialize next generation aviation technology. The FAA should continue to progress down the current, well-defined type certification path for piloted eVTOL aircraft. (Bevirt)
  • The FAA should publish a timely special federal aviation regulation (SFAR) to guide AAM operations. The Biden administration is committed to delivering this by December 2024, but congress needs to make sure that it is completed on schedule and that an interim policy is created to allow commercial operations if that process stalls. (Bevirt)
  • Confirm that eVTOL aircraft can use the thousands of public airports and heliports, as they are designed to do. (Bevirt)
  • Work towards a robust workforce and reduce barriers of entry to careers in aviation. (Bevirt) This can be done through the expansion of the workforce development grant that was begun in the last FAA reauthorization. Bradshaw would like to see rotorcraft included in the eligible pool of these critically important grants.
  • Encourage city land use planners to incorporate advanced air mobility into their communities. Harper believes they hold the key to integration and many University planning programs exclude aviation and advanced air mobility from their curricula.

The witnesses across both panels testified to the potential of the wide variety of new aviation technologies. As FAA reauthorization draws closer, the consideration of the certification and integration of these new technologies into the national airspace system will be critical.

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