At InterDrone, the last big virtual drone show of 2020, FAA Executive Director Jay Merkle engaged in an open discussion with audience members on the future of drone regulation in the U.S.
When Will Rules on Remote ID and Ops Over People Be Released?
Drone regulation in the U.S. has been focused on Remote ID for drones and operations over people for more than a year – and the FAA has promised that both rulings on both would be released before the end of the year. One of the first questions that the audience asked was if that timeframe was still viable.
“Absolutely,” says Merkle. “We’ve cleared the last bits of comments… we believe we’re at the end of all of that commenting and resolution…We’ve made adjustments.”
“I believe that either next week or the week between Christmas and New Year’s, we’ll see the FAA Administrator sign both rules,” Merkle says. “They will get signed in December… it’s been quite a road to get to those signatures.”
Flight Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS)
The next question addressed another hot topic for drone regulation in the U.S. Will a rule on BVLOS fall into place shortly after Remote ID is implemented?
Merkle says that the FAA is definitely working hard to enable BVLOS flight. “We think the biggest challenge left for UAS integration is beyond visual line of sight, ” says Merkle. “With remote ID and ops over people, we’ve got most of the regulations we need to operate within visual line of sight… now our focus is beyond visual line of sight.”
Merkle says that public safety, industrial inspections, and small commercial package delivery are the top applications that rely upon BVLOS flight; and the FAA is working with those companies to frame regulations. “What we’re doing right now in our BEYOND program is working with companies who want to do this kind of operation, and understanding through waivers and exemptions what the policies should look like and what the data about the operations say in terms of what are the performance standards.”
“The next large regulatory actions we’ll be taking in terms of UAS operations will be in enabling beyond visual line of sight. We think the next step will be largely around that public safety or commercial, industrial inspection… that’s where we have the most demand, and where we think we understand it the best.”
The biggest barrier to BVLOS flight is safety on the ground and in the air, Merkle explains. “Because there is not a pilot on board, needing to see and avoid other aircraft is a challenge,” Merkle says. “…We’ve seen innovative concepts where there is no onboard sensor..and we’re open to those. But that is largely around mitigating air risks to other aircraft. The other risk is to people on the ground…. if you are going to fly, you need an aircraft that is reliable and durable.” That’s where the concept of aircraft type certification comes into play: another area that the FAA is working hard to codify.
Another question for the U.S. drone industry – and commuters everywhere – is when urban air mobility may become a reality. It’s not very far off, says Merkle. “[Drone taxis will be a reality] when safe aircraft are certified, and safe operations are certified, and operators find demand and services,” Merkle says.
Those pieces may come together within a relatively few years, based on conversations that the FAA is having with UAM and AAV (Autonomous Aerial Vehicle) providers. “They anticipate revenue service by 24. Some anticipate a year or two after… I think we’re really looking at the next 3-4 years. Several companies are very far along in their design certification and their type certification.”
While UAM is often discussed in the context of drones, Merkle says that drone regulations in the U.S. don’t really cover the sector. “We treat urban air mobility very differently than we treat drones… these are passenger aircraft,” says Merkle. “We treat them like passenger aircraft.”