Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or System enthusiasts have been chaffing at what they perceive as the slow progress being made by the Federal Aviation Administration in issuing the rules for commercial use of UAVs or drones.
So when Jim Williams, manager of the FAA’s Office of Unmanned Aerial Systems Integration, spoke at the Delta AgTech Symposium at the Memphis, Tenn., Agricenter on Tuesday (July 8), they had their questions ready.
Williams, a veteran of the aerospace industry and NASA who took over the Office of UAS Integration two years ago, had barely finished speaking when he was asked why the agency was taking nearly five years to write the regulations. “Why don’t you just do your job?” a clearly frustrated questioner demanded.
“I am doing my job,” said Williams. “Congress directed us to do a lot of work, but they did not exempt us from any of the procedures that they put in place that govern the rulemaking process. The bottom line is since I’ve come on board we’ve made it a priority for the agency, and we’re moving faster than we ever have.”
Williams said the FAA has been providing some exemptions by granting certificates of authority or COAs under a section of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. “We’re doing that to try to jumpstart the industry to avoid having to wait to do anything until that rule comes out.”
The questioner also asked about one of Williams’ presentation slides, which depicted a crop duster and a UAV in close proximity in a field. “I can’t envision any situation in which a farmer would allow such a thing to occur,” he said.
'Fly by themselves'
“I always thought the same thing you did – that you would never have an agricultural aircraft do an application on the same field where someone was doing a crop survey because the farmer would know,” said Williams.
“What I didn’t know until I talked to Stirling Wiggins (a National Agricultural Aviation Association representative who also spoke at the Ag Tech Symposium) was that aerial applicators fly low from where they take off to where they do their application and fly back. They don’t go up to 500 feet and stay above; they follow the knap of the earth the whole time.
“So you could be surveying your crops – and most of these crop survey aircraft you tell them where the boundaries of the field are and they fly themselves. You’re not controlling it like a model aircraft, it’s doing its own thing.”
Model aircraft hobbyists usually spend hours putting their machines together and learning to fly them. Once they start flying, they follow the FAA rules that such aircraft must be kept in sight by the operator at all times.
“When that airplane comes zipping across to its crop dusting field that’s a mile away, and you just happen to be between it and the airport, you got to be watching out for it,” he said. “These new high-tech 'drones,' as they’re called, you don’t have to know how to fly. You just tell them go up, and it goes up to 2,000 feet right into the path of an airplane.”
The FAA is determined to avoid such mishaps. “If we have a manned aircraft vs. unmanned aircraft collision, then things are going to get ugly. What I’m trying to do is prevent that from happening.”
Five-year Road Map
Williams said Congress provided a five-year roadmap for the agency when it passed the FAA Modernization Act in 2012. The Act requires the FAA to finalize the regulations for the “introduction of civilian unmanned aircraft systems into the national aerospace system.”
The regulations are supposed to be in place by September 2015. For many UAV adherents that obviously won’t be soon enough.
Currently, about 600 UAV or UAS operations, mostly conducted by the government through law enforcement agencies, have been approved by the FAA. The agency has also been moving to authorize some commercial operations along with the creation of six test range locations.
“We call the phase we’re in now accommodation, and we’re working toward integration where operations are a lot more routine, and people can get approved and move through the system as we intend them to,” said Williams.
“In the long-term, which is also talked about in our roadmap, we’re going to integrate the unmanned aircraft into that future national aerospace system which is being built under a collection of programs called NexGen.”
The agency plans to release its initial interpretation of the rules in October or November of this year, says Williams. That will be followed by a public comment period of 60 to 90 days. The FAA must then assess those comments and write the final regulations.
Many comments expected
“If we receive 50,000 comments, and we believe it’s possible we will, each of those must be given a disposition before we can proceed with writing the regulations,” he noted. “But we plan to meet the 2015 deadline.”
The six UAS testing sites, which will be located at the University of Alaska, the state of Nevada, New York Griffis International Airport, North Dakota Department of Commerce, Texas A&M University Corpus Christi and Virginia Tech, were approved late last year.
“We had 25 applications from 24 states, which, to me, is amazing because there was no federal money to go to the test sites,” said Williams. “It was strictly just a declaration that they were official test sites.”
Five of the test sites are now operational and the sixth – New York – is expected to be up and running in the fall.
For more on the FAA and UAS, visit http://www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/uas/media/UAS_Roadmap_2013.pdf.