By: Viviana C. Bro
The advent of the automobile turned city streets into havoc. Records from the early 1900s reveal countless hit-and-runs, the running over of children playing on the streets, and even the stoning of reckless motorists. The increasing number of vehicles, combined with a lack of regulation and enforcement, recklessness and intoxication has created a chaotic environment.By the mid-1920s, however, the government had introduced a national, uniform approach to street and highway safety. This action brought order and security, and spurred the creation of a system of national and state roads that has been connecting people across the country ever since. This system has also been crucial to our nation’s economic development.Echoing the early days of the automobile, public, private and governmental entities are actively engaged in developing a cogent aerial traffic management system for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (“UAVs”), also known as “drones.”
Congress has vested on the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) the exclusive authority to regulate airspace use, including the creation of plans and policy for the use of navigable airspace, assuring its efficient use and the safety of aircrafts. To that effect, the FAA “prescribe[s] air traffic regulations on the flight of aircrafts, including regulations on safety altitudes” intended to protect people and property on the ground. It also assists with navigation and identification of aircrafts, and helps prevent collision between aircrafts and land or water
vehicles, and aircrafts and other airborne objects.Since UAVs are categorized as aircraft, their
operation falls under FAA control.
In the last couple of years, UAVs have increased dramatically in number as well as complexity. Regulation, on the other hand, has lagged behind. Currently, the operation of commercial drones, drones that are used for work or business, is controlled by 14 CFR part 107. Some of the most salient elements of this piece of legislation confine drone activity to daylight hours, impose an altitude restriction of below 400 feet, limit speeds to less than 100 mph, and require visual line of sight. Additionally, drone operators have to obtain a drone pilot certification. To request exceptions to these rules, operators have to apply for waivers, which are not guaranteed, and can take months for approval.Understandably, the public and business community have clamored for meaningful and comprehensive regulation that better aligns with ever-evolving drone technology, and is able to support the economic expansion of UAVs.
Recognizing this imperative, the government has deployed several initiatives. One of them, the Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (“UTM”) is charged with investigating, developing and testing UAV operations within the shared navigable airspace.
The UTM is led by NASA, which has partnered with the FAA, other federal agencies, as well as academic and commercial entities, to design a system that will manage drone traffic.More specific goals include the creation of a concept of operation, determining data exchange requirements, and delineating a framework to enable operation of multiple UAVs at low altitudes, beyond visual line of sight, and without the support of air traffic services.The UTM research findings will also inform future regulation. Once delineated, approved and implemented, the UTM system “will be separate from but complementary to the traditional FAA air management system.”
Ancillary to the UTM is the UTM Pilot Program (“UPP”). This program is designed to provide proof that the UTM system, now in research and development stage, is operational and suitable for deployment.Its mandate is to advance the safe integration of UAVs into the national airspace, and provide an informed understanding of the functional specifications for UTM deployment, and assessment of the investment requirements to bring the UTM system into reality. As of January of 2019, the Department of Transportation had identified three FAA UAS test sites to participate in the UPP: Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems, Northern Plains UAS Test Site, and Virginia Tech, Mid Atlantic Aviation Partnership. The UPP final report is expected by the end of 2019.
Another recent initiative is the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program (IPP). Operating under the auspices of the Department of Transportation, this initiative has partnered the FAA with 10 local, state and tribal governments selected from a nation-wide pool of applicants. The selectees will join forces with private sector participants to explore the further integration of drone operations. The data to be gathered from this pilot project will be
used to inform a new regulatory framework for the safe integration of drones into the nation’s airspace.
These initiatives matter because they represent steps toward some meaningful systems and regulation. The public and the business sector seek clarification and guidance as concerns surge due to increased drone activity. Without guidance, there is speculation, misinformation and economic stagnation as businesses are unwilling to develop and invest in technologies that may become unfeasible once legislation is enacted.
Other countries seem to share this sentiment. A research paper that analyzed current legal frameworks for drone operation across the world reveals various levels of drone regulation, with an emphasis on avoiding harm to other aerial vehicles, as well as people and property on the ground. The study also claims that the current state of regulation inhibits research and development as well as innovation because legislation straggle behind drone technology, which negatively impacts scientific projects.
Unquestionably, implementing a UAV traffic management system is a monumental challenge. Such a system must overcome enormous logistical and practical considerations prior to becoming operational. Issues such as privacy concerns, safety of air space, remote-tracking of drones, and financing of operations are overwhelming, and tend to lead to execution paralysis. Under these circumstances, it is encouraging to see drone initiatives that engender collaboration among the government, the public and the private industry. These partnerships can only move us closer to a UAV traffic management system, and development of relevant regulations.
In the early part of the last century, the automobile surged like an unstoppable wave, and forced the government, and community at large to act in unison with admirable results. Once again, the nation grapples with a formidable technology that has the potential to reshape commerce and travel. As in the past, we must embrace the challenge and seize the opportunity to forge a lasting traffic management system and infrastructure capable of nourishing drone technology expansion, and unlocking its full economic potential.
Bill Loomis, 1900-1930: The years of driving dangerously, The Detroit News (April 26, 2015), https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/michigan-history/2015/04/26/auto-traffic-history-detroit/26312107/.
Contributions and Crossroads Timeline, U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/candc/timeline.cfm.
 State and Local Regulation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Fact Sheet, Federal Aviation Administration Office of the Chief Counsel (Dec. 17, 2015), https://www.faa.gov/uas/resources/policy_library/media/UAS_Fact_Sheet_Final.pdf.
Remarks Prepared for Delivery by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, Transp. Research Board Annual Meeting, D.C., U.S. Dep’t of Transportation, (Jan. 14, 2019), https://www.transportation.gov/briefing-room/transportation-research-board-annual-meeting-washington-dc.
FAQs: NASA’s Drone Traffic Management Research in Reno and Corpus Christi, NASA(May 21, 2019) https://www.nasa.gov/feature/ames/faqs-nasa-s-drone-traffic-management-research-in-reno-and-corpus-christi
Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management(UTM), Federal Aviation Administration, https://www.faa.gov/uas/research_development/traffic_management/(last updated Feb. 1, 2019).
Remarks Prepared for Delivery by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, Transp. Research Board Annual Meeting, D.C., U.S. Dep’t of Transp., (Jan. 14, 2019), https://www.transportation.gov/briefing-room/transportation-research-board-annual-meeting-washington-dc.
Frequently Asked Questions,Federal Aviation Admin., https://www.faa.gov/uas/research_development/traffic_management/utm_pilot_program/media/UTM_Pilot_Program_Information.pdf
U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao Announces Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program Selectees(Press Release), Federal Aviation Admin., (May 9, 2018), https://www.faa.gov/news/press_releases/news_story.cfm?newsId=22755.
Claudia Stoker et al., Review of the Current State of UAV Regulations, MDPI,(May 9, 2017), https://www.mdpi.com/2072-4292/9/5/459/htm.