U.S. air-safety regulators have announced plans for industry-government pilot projects to test airborne identification of drones, the latest bid to accelerate development of such systems nationwide.
The new Federal Aviation Administration program, spelled out in a Federal Register notice earlier this month, envisions creating up to eight company-financed prototype projects to examine various options. The goal is to verify technologies and provide real-world data to hasten broader regulatory steps aimed at significantly expanding commercial uses of unmanned aircraft.
Lessons learned from the tests—which at this point have no public price tag or timetable—are intended to counter widespread industry complaints that the FAA has moved too slowly and cautiously in establishing mandatory rules for remote identification of drones.
“This is a really positive signal that the FAA is accelerating its efforts,” said Joshua Ziering, co-founder of startup drone-services provider Kittyhawk. “Private industry is ready and waiting to demonstrate solutions.”
Without reliable ways to remotely identify and track drones, regulators, law-enforcement agencies and national-security officials have resisted opening up swaths of U.S. airspace for the burgeoning industry. Commercial drones generally are restricted to a maximum of 55 pounds, and are allowed to fly only below 400 feet and within sight of an operator on the ground.
For the past year, drone-identification rule making has run into major roadblocks, from industry splits to Federal Bureau of Investigation concerns that current concepts don’t go far enough to ensure authorities will know the identity, flight path and intention of drones. A proposed identification rule is expected to be released in coming months, but it could take a year or two to make it final.
In the interim, the FAA has decided to rely on joint company-agency efforts to begin exploring the most promising answers. The agency has adopted a similar approach to the way it authorizes private drone-services providers to act as intermediaries between operators and federal air-traffic controllers. That system has streamlined the process of obtaining clearances for low-altitude flights around airports.
Previously, an FAA spokesman has said that safety remains paramount in drafting remote-identification rules. “We have to get this right the first time,” he said. “We are moving as quickly as possible to address the complex issues.”
The White House also has championed separate pilot projects, already under way, to examine and fast-track a broad array of prospective drone uses.
Nonetheless, industry frustration has been mounting over the slow pace of formal regulations. The FAA is “on a very slow train to get them out and effective,” according to Kenneth Quinn, a former federal regulator who now runs the global aviation practice at law firm Baker McKenzie LLP.
In its low-key announcement of the remote-identification initiative before Christmas, FAA officials stressed their commitment to flexibility. The agency seeks to concentrate on small-scale, short-term field trials as precursors to help shape long-term strategies
The lack of relatively inexpensive and dependable drone-identification options is widely considered the biggest hurdle preventing routine drone flights over populated areas, package-delivery services and other promising applications from becoming reality.
The anticipated pilot projects are geared to give companies maximum leeway to combine services as long as they establish cooperative data-sharing systems with the FAA. Some providers “may choose to offer an entire suite of services, while others may choose to specialize in one service,” according to the notice.
But under all circumstances, the FAA wants different systems to be able to communicate with each other and for collaboration to be at no cost to the government.
Responding to corporate pressure and escalating fears that other countries are surpassing the U.S in supporting the drone industry, Congress earlier this year ordered the FAA to accelerate rule making. One of the primary questions that still must be answered, however, is whether drones will broadcast positions using cellphone signals or more extensive internet networks covering larger geographical areas and including law-enforcement agencies.
Write to Andy Pasztor at [email protected]
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