FAA Names Two Executives to Head Unmanned Aircraft Effort

 - September 2, 2015, 1:33 PM

The Federal Aviation Administration named a former two-star U.S. Air Force general and the director of its small-airplane directorate to lead its efforts to more widely introduce unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the national airspace. The two new executives replace Jim Williams, who managed the agency’s UAS Integration Office before retiring in June.

The agency selected Marke “Hoot” Gibson, previously executive director of the non-profit NextGen Institute, as senior advisor on UAS Integration, reporting directly to FAA deputy administrator Michael Whitaker. Gibson served in the Air Force from 1978 to 2011, retiring with the rank of major general. He was rated by the service as a command pilot, having flown both fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft types.

Earl Lawrence was named director of the UAS Integration Office, reporting to associate administrator for aviation safety Peggy Gilligan. Lawrence served for five years as director of the FAA’s small airplane directorate in Kansas City, part of the agency’s Air Certification Service. Before joining the FAA in 2010, he had served since 1994 as vice president for industry and regulatory affairs with the Experimental Aircraft Association.

Now employed by the law firm Dentons, Williams was the first executive to manage the UAS Integration Office, which in 2012 combined the unmanned aircraft units of the Air Traffic Organization and Aviation Safety branches. When Williams retired on June 1, the FAA decided to establish two positions to advance its UAS program.

In its announcement on September 2, the FAA said Gibson will focus on “external outreach and education, inter-agency initiatives and an enterprise-level approach to FAA management of UAS integration efforts.” Lawrence “will lead the FAA’s efforts to safely and effectively integrate UAS into the nation’s airspace.”

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 that President Barack Obama signed into law on February 14 that year directed the FAA to provide for the “safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system as soon as practicable, but not later than Sept. 30, 2015.”

While it is recognized that the agency will not make that date to allow the widespread use of unmanned aircraft, it has made incremental progress by granting more than 1,200 exemptions to operators to fly drones commercially, an option allowed under Section 333 of the 2012 legislation. By early next year, the FAA expects to issue a regulation governing the operation of small unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds.