FAA pushes tech breakthroughs, safety in drone planning

Read the rest of our coverage from May’s special report on drones.

Earl Lawrence’s job at the FAA is to get unmanned aircraft flying in the same airspace as the 50,000 commercial and general aviation flights that occur daily in the United States, and do so without compromising safety. Lawrence declined to be interviewed but provided written responses to questions about UAS integration in the U.S. National Airspace System.

Q: What are the primary challenges of integrating UAS in the national airspace?

Further expanding allowable UAS operations and having this emerging technology safely achieve its full potential requires resolving several key challenges. Before operations beyond visual line-of-sight can become routine, FAA must address risks posed by drones to other manned aircraft, as well as risks posed by drones during a loss-of-operator-control event. We are working with the seven UAS test sites, our UAS Center of Excellence and NASA to address many of the technical challenges. Additionally, preemption, privacy, enforcement, and security — both physical and cyber — remain key issues as UAS integration progresses.

Q: In recent congressional testimony, you mentioned pilots reported 1,800 unmanned aircraft sightings in 2016. Do you expect that number to continue to climb?

Although the numbers aren’t final, we believe the sightings have leveled off in the last couple of months. We are actively engaged in public education and outreach efforts, such as “Know Before You Fly” and the small UAS registration process to make sure operators are aware of UAS regulations and where they can fly without posing a hazard to manned aircraft.

Q: What is the FAA doing to prevent unmanned aircraft from colliding with manned aircraft?

Education is a key part of our efforts, but not the only part. We also continue to work closely with our industry partners to evaluate promising drone-detection technologies, some of which have been tested in airport environments at New York’s JFK Airport, Atlantic City International Airport and Denver International Airport. Further testing will take place at Dallas-Fort Worth later this year. In addition, the FAA is working with our interagency partners to develop policies and procedures for restricting UAS operations over fixed site facilities, as directed by Section 2209 of the 2016 FAA Extension.

Q: How do UAS fit into the FAA’s Next Generation Air Traffic Control System?

NextGen will allow UAS to operate safely and efficiently inside domestic airspace. The FAA and industry both have key roles to play in the implementation process; neither of us is going to solve all of the challenges and deliver the capability by flying solo.

Our Center of Excellence is conducting UAS research in the areas of air traffic integration, airworthiness, control and communication, detect and avoid, human factors, low-altitude operations safety and training. NASA is engaged with the seven FAA-selected UAS test ranges to research NASA’s unmanned aircraft traffic management system, better known as UTM. NASA is researching prototype technologies that could be implemented by the UAS community to enable safe and efficient low-altitude UAS operations.

Q: What technologies need to be improved before UAS can fly in controlled airspace alongside manned aircraft?

The key technologies are drone-detection systems (as mandated in Section 2206 of the 2016 FAA Extension), robust systems for control and communication, effective detect and avoid systems, whether ground-based or airborne, and workable traffic management systems to support operators in identifying potential conflicts, provide an automated capability for the FAA to approve or deny requests for airspace usage and notify users of any constraints.

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About Debra Werner

A longtime contributor to Aerospace America, Debra is also a correspondent for Space News on the West Coast of the United States.

Earl Lawrence

  • Director of FAA’s UAS Integration Office
  • Formerly head of FAA’s Small Airplane Directorate
  • Managed government affairs for the Experimental Aircraft Association

FAA pushes tech breakthroughs, safety in drone planning