Manufacturers Must Prove Commercial UAS Flight Safety Says FAA

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Jim Williams, manager of the FAA UAS Integration Office
Jim Williams of the FAA's UAS Integration Office spoke Monday at the Unmanned Systems conference. (Photo: Bill Carey)
May 12, 2014, 10:47 PM

Commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) is possible once manufacturers demonstrate the airworthiness of their designs, according to the manager of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office. “It’s a two-way street,” advised Jim Williams. “The FAA can’t pull the industry up.”

Williams spoke during a May 12 “Civilian Applications for UAS” workshop held in advance of the Unmanned Systems 2014 conference in Orlando. He later faced several testy questioners from an industry audience clearly dissatisfied with the FAA’s progress in opening the airspace system to commercial UAS operations, which the agency currently prohibits. The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International organized the half-day workshop.

One questioner from Australia said that country’s aviation authority legalized commercial UAS operations in 2002. “My question is: What is your best estimate of when commercial drone activities will be able to take place over populous areas in the United States?” he asked. “And, if I may, do you think the United States is at risk of losing this industry to countries with more forward-looking regulatory environments?” The remark was met with applause by the audience.

“Commercial aircraft operations for unmanned aircraft could be happening today if a manufacturer were to get their aircraft certified and come up with a means of operation over populated areas,” Williams replied. “There are companies that are in discussion with the FAA to do just that. There is no restriction against it. What most people see as the limitation is really the airworthiness certification rules, which admittedly were not created for unmanned aircraft operations. They were created for manned aircraft operations.”

Williams said Part 21.17 of federal aircraft certification regulations provides a route for new entrants to propose a set of standards and undergo an approval process to earn a type certificate. “Every airship out there is certified using those methods. There are industry consensus standards that are used to certify airships,” Williams said. “I believe it’s a matter of a company with the wherewithal coming forward with an aircraft, taking it through the certification process, demonstrating to the FAA that it will be a safe operation and it will not put people on the ground or in the air at risk.”

Another questioner asked why only two of the six UAS test ranges the FAA selected on December 30—those in North Dakota and Alaska—have received certificates of authorization (COA) from the agency and started operations, when Congress required operations to begin 180 days after site selection, or by late June. “Out of six sites that were awarded, there’s two sites operational with three COAs within that,” he said. “Why wasn’t that approved as part of the process of selection? Why didn’t the FAA visit those sites to verify they had what they needed before selection, and how can we go out there as industry and get certified when you have two of six sites [operational] five months after selection?”

Williams said the 180-day deadline Congress inserted in the 2012 FAA reauthorization act required that the first site begin operating in that time. “The bottom line was the congressional mandate was ‘one test site up and running’ within 180 days, which we’ve achieved, plus one,” he said. “We think they’ll all get there and we have confidence in the success of the program overall.”

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