FAA Chief: 5G Brings 'Sharp Focus' on Need To Look Beyond Industry

 - January 18, 2023, 4:01 PM
(Photo: FAA)

Concerns surrounding 5G implementation have brought into “sharp focus” how the aviation industry is inextricably linked to others and how the industry must work more quickly and in an agile way to anticipate risks that emerging innovation can pose, FAA acting Administrator Billy Nolen said Wednesday.

Speaking during a webinar hosted by RTCA, Nolen said when he joined the agency a year ago, much of the dialog surrounded 5G and “how we are going to avoid falling into some sort of a major crisis mode.”

But Nolen noted that, believing 5G and commercial aviation could coexist, the agency reached out not only to the telecoms but across government agencies. He added that “we’ve made great progress” as a result of collaborative partnerships. “We have to engage early and we have to engage often. So, we've set that as a model.”

The FAA, however, also needs to look at what can be collectively done to make processes faster, such as shepherding a new generation of radio altimeter performance standards as the telecommunications industry looks beyond 5G to 6G and further.

“We've been accustomed to this seven- to 10-year horizon to get things done, but really we've got to now think about half that time or even less because that's truly the rate and pace at which technology is advancing,” Nolen said.

To accomplish this, the industry needs to remain a partner, he said. “We depend on the industry to provide technical knowledge of how our critical systems can continue to operate safely and efficiently and effectively, whether it's 5G or some other potential risk factor. We have to ensure safety while being prepared that our way of operating will change again, and aviation can no longer afford to treat itself like a closed society.”

The industry must consider other sectors such as telecommunications or electric utility providers that will power future electric aircraft, he added. “We need that creative tension, that exchange of philosophies between the different industries.” And this same approach must be taken as well with the global aviation community with a harmonized approach.

While the FAA must take its time to keep safety as its overriding mission, it must also be purposeful and move quickly where possible, he said, pointing to the drone industry as an example. The FAA late last year licensed its one-millionth drone in the U.S. and is projecting that by 2025 it could see 2.5 million.

At the same time, it has to prepare for advanced air mobility. To that end, Nolen echoed the sentiments of other industry leaders in saying, “I can't imagine a more exciting time than the one we're in right now.”

The FAA is taking a “very purposeful and driven approach” using three approaches: certification, operations, and integration into the airspace. On certification, Nolen said, “We've got a pretty straightforward pathway that is something that, we're actually pretty doggone good at.” As for operations, the FAA is looking at the nature of flight and wants to ensure that pilots are prepared for the ability of vertical lift and forward flight as well as the possibility for autonomy. Integration must be seamless with an approach that is harmonized with such operations outside the U.S., he said.

FAA is aware that some in the AAM sector have hopes for 2023 but based on conversations with the industry, 2024 or early 2025 may be more likely for service entry. “We’ll see how that works out,” he said. “I can tell you...we will never sacrifice safety for technology, but we are mindful that we'll work together in a very aspirational and purposeful way to make sure we can bring it all together safely and at scale.”

As it does this, the FAA must consider obsolete equipment and what’s no longer necessary. “That’s one of the exercises that we are indeed staring into,” Nolen said, but cautioned that given the complexity of the airspace system and the interconnectivity of its systems, “we have to be careful about how we pull apart the old technology to make sure there's no knockoff effect and make sure it doesn't have an unintended consequence of putting constraints on the newer technology.”

But it is an exercise worth moving forward on because it could free up resources, he maintained.

Nolen touched upon a range of other subjects from workforce and FAA reauthorization to sustainability and general aviation safety. On the latter topic, he noted how the FAA, in collaboration with industry, has been spreading risk-based models into general aviation.

The agency also has been conducting “more and more outreach,” noting that “In the last few months of 2022, the FAA Safety Team did 566 seminars with over 13,000 attendees." He recalled how well attended the "Meet the Administrator" session was at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. “We are using every avenue and every tool in our toolbox.”

He also pointed to the role of technology and how certain equipment makes its way into light aircraft well ahead of large aircraft given the difference in certification requirements. “You've got an iPad, you've got a Garmin, you've got your moving map display… We've leveraged that to improve safety in general aviation. So we'll continue to do that.”

He said he is really passionate about moving to a fully predictive model to stop accidents before they happen.

Nolen further praised progress on safety management systems (SMS). While the FAA has issued the proposal to make it mandatory for manufacturers and Part 135 operators, along with air tours, many have already voluntarily adopted such programs. “We think that that's a major step forward. Business aviation has always been one that has taken safety very, very seriously.”