U.S. East, West Converge as Drone Advisory Committee Meets

 - September 16, 2016, 3:26 PM
Intel CEO Brian Krzanich and RTCA president Margaret Jenny preside at first Drone Advisory Committee meeting. (Photo: Bill Carey)

The U.S. east and west coasts converged on September 16 as the new Drone Advisory Committee (DAC) that will make recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration on integrating drones into the national airspace system held its inaugural meeting in the nation’s capital.

Present at the three-sided table were the leaders of several aviation trade associations based in the Washington, D.C. area, sitting alongside senior executives of companies including online retailer Amazon of Seattle and California-based Google and Facebook. Brian Krzanich, CEO of Santa Clara, California-based Intel Corp., is chairman of the committee, which also counts as members San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Deborah Flint, CEO of Los Angeles World Airports.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced the plan to establish a drone committee representing industry and other “stakeholders” at the Xponential 2016 conference in New Orleans in May. In late August, the agency named 35 members to the DAC from the 400 people who expressed interest. Plans call for the committee to meet three times a year for two years; much of its detailed work will likely be done in smaller working groups.

The DAC is modeled on the FAA’s NextGen Advisory Committee, which has advised the agency in setting priorities for its long-running, multibillion-dollar effort to modernize the U.S. air traffic control system. Standards organization RTCA, which has official status as an advisory body to the FAA, administers both of the committees.

In basic terms, the DAC represents a confluence of the innovation in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) coming in large part from California’s Silicon Valley and the Pacific Northwest, with the regulatory and political interests of the mainstream aviation industry centered in Washington, D.C. Giving opening remarks at the first meeting, Huerta noted that some members of the committee hail from the traditional aviation community where safety is a paramount focus; others come from “the entrepreneurial community, where taking risks and making bets is in your DNA.”

Huerta added: “We intentionally brought these distinct cultures together, and I’m not asking any of you to change your views.” Instead, he asked the group to agree on recommendations for the further integration of drones into the airspace system, and in the process “infusing it with the safety margin that the public expects and deserves.”

At least at the outset, the FAA appears committed to the effort. Joining Huerta at the table were several top FAA executives, including acting deputy administrator Victoria Wassmer, Air Traffic Organization chief operating officer Teri Bristol, associate administrator for aviation safety Peggy Gilligan, assistant administrator for policy, international affairs, environment and energy Jennifer Solomon, senior advisor for UAS integration Marke “Hoot” Gibson, and Earl Lawrence, director of the UAS Integration Office.

Lawrence briefed the committee on the immense challenge the FAA faces in regulating potentially hundreds of thousands of commercial drones and in maintaining safety with potentially millions more being flown by hobbyists. Some 12,000 people have applied to the FAA to operate drones commercially since the agency’s new Part 107 regulation took effect on August 29, and more than 500,000 have registered hobby drones through the agency’s on-line system. “It’s more than our traditional aviation profile,” Lawrence said. “The community is much larger and more diverse. What’s really unique is the sheer volume of operations and [their] personal nature.”

For example, Lawrence noted that the “follow-me” capability of some drones is not typical for aviation. “How do we deal with that? That’s not a Point A to Point B operation,” he observed.

Krzanich, who is a licensed pilot, said his goal as DAC chairman “is to make sure that every voice is heard…and that at the end of the day we make a recommendation to the FAA.” When Huerta asked him to lead the committee “it took all of less than 10 seconds to say ‘yes’ because I believe in this industry wholeheartedly,” he added.