Senate Committee Investigates Drone Integration for FAA Reauthorization

On Wednesday, September 28, the Subcommittee on Aviation Safety, Operations, and Innovations under the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee met to discuss the integration of new entrants into the National Airspace System (NAS). This discussion is the first in a series of subcommittee hearings that aim to inform the 2023 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization. Chaired by Sen. Krysten Sinema (D-AR), the committee explored the challenges that industry leaders and stakeholders in advanced air mobility (AAM) and uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS) face when trying to get their technologies certified, implemented, and scaled around the United States.

Five witnesses testified at the hearing (click on their name to read their prepared testimony):

  • Lisa Ellman, Executive Director, Commercial Drone Alliance
  • Gregory Davis, President and Chief Executive Office, Eviation
  • Colonel (Ret.) Stephen P. “Lux” Luxion, Executive Director, FAA Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (Also known as the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence, or ASSURE)
  • Stéphane Fymat, Vice President and General Manager, Urban Air Mobility and Unmanned Aerial Systems, Honeywell Aerospace
  • Edward M. Bolen, President and Chief Executive Officer, National Business Aviation Association

In the United States alone, there are over 860,000 civilian and commercial drones registered with the FAA and over 260,000 certified remote pilots. In her opening statement, Sinema said the AAM market in the U.S. is expected to reach $115 billion by 2035, but only if the technologies can be certified and implemented quickly and cost effectively. After its recent passage in the House and the Senate, the Advanced Air Mobility Coordination and Leadership Act (H.R. 1339) will soon be on the President’s desk. While witnesses indicated it was a step in the right direction, there are still many concerns that are being raised in preparation for FAA reauthorization.

Speed and aptitude of the FAA

Keeping the upcoming FAA reauthorization in mind, two major concerns about the agency specifically were shared by many stakeholders: the slow regulatory speed of the FAA and the inability for the FAA to do its job in the AAM market sector so far. Most strongly asserted by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), many high-ranking positions at the FAA are held by acting members, and the recently nominated administrator’s path to confirmation became more challenging because of concerns raised about his handling of a no-bid contract during his tenure at LA Metro. Cruz highlighted the Lockhart air balloon disaster that occurred in Texas in 2016, wondering how, if safety improvements recommended after that disaster have still not been implemented, in the FAA’s current state they will be able to regulate a potentially much larger industry. Ellman pointed to a 2012 mandate (FAA Modernization and Reform Act, H.R. 658) to integrate UAS into the NAS, with which the FAA still has not yet followed through. Fymat recommended that deadlines be applied to important regulatory processes so that they get implemented in a timely manner.

Witnesses, including Ellman and Boland, were quick to acknowledge in their responses that individuals at the FAA have been hardworking and committed, but structural problems have made their jobs more difficult. Ellman likened the situation to “sticking a square peg into a round hole”; the current FAA is applying congressionally dictated regulatory processes for crewed aircraft to UAS, and it just isn’t working, she said.

Fymat noted that many drone operations are taking place in sparsely populated areas and under operating conditions that are vastly different from traditional crewed operations. Drones have the potential to save lives through medication delivery, disaster response, and by supplementing dangerous jobs such as aerial chemical application in agriculture. Multiple witnesses see these situations as low risk and high reward. Ellman argued that type certifications need to be sped up and consider the nuances of operating scenarios to enable innovation and prevent new technologies from becoming outdated before they are certified. Lux added that because UAS technologies and operations are vastly different from those of traditional crewed aircraft, it isn’t always clear to both the industry and FAA staff who has the regulatory authority and power for each instance.

The need for a national road map

Throughout the subcommittee hearing, the importance of being on the forefront of innovation in the aviation sector as a nation was reiterated. Fymat pointed out that great countries have great transportation systems. He, amongst other witnesses and subcommittee members indicated a need for a mandate from the top of government that the United States will be a leader in AAM and UAS integration into the current NAS. Boland indicated that communication and coordination between the FAA, other agencies, and the industry will be a critical part of integration efforts. Doing so will need to be intentional and structured, and having a government mandate that outlines the manner in which to do so would be all the more helpful. Additionally, a national road map would allow the industry to invest more in the technology as there would be a more certain regulatory path. They are less likely to do so if there is greater risk that their tech will not be approved for use.

Note that this discussion follows two recent Eno research papers. In Bridging the Gap: Sustaining UAS Progress While Pursuing a Permanent Regulatory Framework (2020), we recommend the FAA take concrete steps to build an integrated framework, while honing the existing one to save resources, speed development, and ensure safety in the meantime. Guiding the New UAS Industry to Safety Excellence (2021) outlines practical steps to expand adoption of key principles of safety culture and Safety Management Systems (SMS) based on analysis of public expectations, the composition of the UAS industry, traditional aviation safety tools, and prior DOT experience in promulgating these in new transportation industries.

Further cost and regulatory hurdles

Both witnesses and subcommittee members mentioned more specific issues that increase cost and regulatory risk for industry stakeholders. Witnesses shared two recommendations that they believe would help to reduce the cost and time it takes to develop and certify a new technology in the AAM sector. First, leveraging existing systems, such as an enhanced grid for electric vehicle charging stations, would help with AAM problems, such as the implementation of charging stations for electric propulsion aircraft like those being tested by Eviation, as Davis pointed out. Partnerships with agencies outside the FAA, like the Department of Energy in this case, will again be beneficial. Second, working with regulatory bodies across the globe, including the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), will make products and services viable outside of U.S. borders, allowing for greater impact and profitability.

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