This is the second FAA UAS Symposium I’ve attended and the contrast between the two has been so day and night that it feels like I may need a waiver.

This year the symposium had almost double the number of attendees with well over 1000 people there. It wasn’t just policy wonks either. There was a very healthy smattering of independent commercial operators, the usual industry faces, and the most FAA folks I’ve ever seen at one event. It made for a very refreshing mix of people and lead to some very interesting conversations.

Elwell Explicates the Plan

Regardless of your feelings about the FAA administrator, one must admit they have an extremely challenging job. They’re the figurehead for everything from the future of supersonic flight to paraglider policy to drone commercialization. Understanding the nuances of all those different forms of aviation is a challenge unto itself, intelligently pioneering the way forward on them is another level of complexity entirely. You can read his opening address, “Writing History in Real Time” here.

Remote ID

A running theme of the event was the implementation and requirement of Remote ID. The last year has seen a lot of focus on this topic. The Remote ID Advisory and Rulemaking Committee has been described as a challenging environment. Dee Ann Divis of Inside Unmanned Systems described it as “splintered.” From the rumors that I’ve heard, this is a very diplomatic description.

Remote ID

 

The overwhelming sentiment I garnered from the FAA is that Remote ID is going to be the lynch pin that enables the rest of the UTM features we’re looking forward to. Flights over people? BVLOS? Night time ops? They all depend on being able to identify aircraft and their owners.

The market is taking steps to mitigate unknown operators. Airspace Systems, just raised $20MM for their drone hunting drone. If you want to see it in action, you can watch this very heroic video.

Elwell came right out and said two important things of note: “The FAA is moving very quickly to create Remote ID requirements.” In fact, there was a timeline being bandied about that included the year 2018 which in iteself is exciting news. It’s been 1.5 years since part 107 was released and seeing the next phase take shape is very promising.

The other juicy statement that Elwell made was about the model aircraft exemption. Part 101, section 336 is what allows model aircraft hobbyists to operate without oversight of the FAA. They simply must be apart of a nationwide community based organization such as the AMA.

However, this ‘carve out’ is causing all kinds of problems since a lot of people feel they don’t need to follow that safety code. This leads to them being classified as ‘non-compliant Part 107’ operators and it goes down the rabbit hole from there. I think that people hiding behind 336 is impeding commercial drone progress and I suspect I’m not the only one.

I’ve got a larger piece coming on why I think there needs to be significant reforms to the model aircraft exemption so keep an eye out for that.

BVLOS — It’s really hot right now.

By far the most popular sessions were about BVLOS and how to get that waiver. As a highly jaded drone person, I actually found myself feeling something unfamiliar — surprise.

The first thing that surprised me was how willing the FAA was to, at the very least, listen to new waiver applications. If you put forth a solid effort on explaining why and how you’ll be able mitigate the risks of a BVLOS operation, you’ll get at least two people reviewing your application. If you’ve done a thorough job filling it out but are missing some critical information, they’ll even give you a request for additional information.

The other thing that surprised me was how few people were able to convince the FAA that they’d be able to mitigate those risks. To date, the FAA has only issued about 20 waiver for BVLOS. If you search for 107.31 (The visual line of sight requirement) You’ll see 16 entries on the FAA database: https://www.faa.gov/uas/request_waiver/waivers_granted/

One BVLOS waiver, granted to FLIR, was for a 34 gram aircraft about the size of your hand. The mechanics of the human eye necessitated they get a BVLOS waiver and they were granted one. I think this was largely an exercise in marketing since it’s below 255 grams and doesn’t require registration, a BVLOS waiver seems a little overkill but kudos to them for playing the game.

One other notable waiver was to BNSF for track inspection. They’re using a lot of heavy-duty hardware from the likes of Rockwell Collins. This type of hardware is more often seen in the combat theatre than in the heartland of the US.

While expounding upon the BVLOS waivers, the FAA noted that BNSF is actually one of the smaller entities that received a waiver for BVLOS. If you thought that your tiny two-person show was going to cruise through the waiver application process, you should probably think again.

Takeaways

Elwell says, “The FAA is open for business” and I’m inclined to believe him. The current administration has made it very clear that they would like to fast-track America’s drone innovation. You can see evidence of this in programs like the UAS IPP, the nationwide beta roll out of LAANC, and the addition of new USS suppliers like Kittyhawk.

Overall, I’m impressed. 2018 is going to be a great year for the FAA and the commercial drone industry if they can keep up this pace.