FAA Administrator Recaps Year Of Progress, Acknowledges Challenges Ahead For Drones

LAS VEGAS — It was a landmark year for unmanned aircraft with commercial operations cleared for takeoff, but the head of  the Federal Aviation Administration says his agency has more left to do.

Michael Huerta

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta outlined a year of accomplishments and challenges during his Jan. 6 address at the Consumer Electronics Show. Though the launch of Part 107 in August was a major milestone for the U.S. drone industry.

Since the regulations became active, more than 30,000 have started the process toward receiving a remote pilot certificate necessary to fly commercially. Around 16,000 have taken the test, with Huerta reporting a 90 percent passage rate.

Despite the fanfare, many in the industry will note the road to Part 107 was a long one mired with setbacks and red tape. Moving forward, the path for continued integration of drones will likely be just as complex.

“Our challenge is to find the right balance where safety and innovation co-exist on relatively equal planes,” Huerta said. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say we have accomplished more toward this goal in the past year than we did in all previous years combined.”

In addition to touting Part 107, Huerta highlighted the work of the Drone Advisory Committee, established this year to assist the FAA with the integration of UAS technology by identifying challenges and priorities. The group, headed by Intel CEO Brian Krzanich and composed of representatives from defense contractors, politicians, drone manufacturers and trade groups.

The group has two main tasks, the first of which is identifying high-priority operations and how to conduct them in the national airspace. Second, its members will help shape the roles and responsibilities of drone operators, manufacturers, and federal, state, and local officials when it comes to using the aircraft in populated areas.

“We also know that for us to be successful, we cannot dictate from above” Huerta said. “We must work in close collaboration and partnership with the industry and those who fly unmanned aircraft for both recreation and commercial purposes.
“So instead of telling the drone industry and drone operators what they can’t do, we’re helping them do what they want to do – while ensuring they operate safely.”
The number of unmanned aircraft operators continues to grow in the United States, with the FAA estimating millions of the devices were purchased during the holiday season.
With more operators  and a greater awareness of drone technology comes an uptick in another set of numbers: drone sightings reported by aviation personnel such as commercial pilots and air traffic controllers.
About 1,800 sightings were reported in 2016, compared to about 1,200 the prior year, Huerta noted. The increase comes despite massive education efforts such as the launching of Know Before You Fly, a website and app aimed at teaching users of all sorts about proper drone safety.
But other FAA effort seems to have made progress. Started as an initiative during last year’s holiday season, hobby and business drone flyers are asked to register their aircraft with the FAA. Since the program began in December 2015, about 670,000 people have registered.
The agency also has been working with NASA, which is pioneering an unmanned air traffic management system. The system saw several tests this year, with personnel from North Dakota assisting on two occasions. Test site staff flew aircraft in Grand Forks County and near Denver to stress test the UTM system.
“Tests like these will help build the foundation for managing much greater amounts of drone traffic in the coming years,” Huerta said.