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The FAA's drone regulations won't be ready until at least 2017

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A congressional hearing reveals reasons why the agency is so far behind

Just a few weeks ago, we got hints of how restrictive the Federal Aviation Administration's forthcoming commercial drone rules might be. But those details apparently didn't mean the agency was any closer to completing those rules, as FAA official Peggy Gilligan told a congressional House panel today. "We all agree that the project is taking too long," she said.

The panel — run by the House's Transportation and Infrastructure Committee — was convened to address provisions of the FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2012 specific to Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), or drones. Those provisions set forth a timeline for the FAA to integrate drone usage into the National Airspace System, and the agency has been falling behind. The panel featured testimony from Gilligan, the Department of Transportation's Assistant Inspector General for Aviation Audits Matthew Hampton, and Gerald Dillingham, the director of civil aviation for the Government Accountability Office, among others. Most notably, Dillingham testified that "the consensus of opinion is the integration of unmanned systems will likely slip from the mandated deadline until 2017 or even later."

"The consensus of opinion is the integration of unmanned systems will likely slip from the mandated deadline until 2017 or even later."

Gilligan went on to add that the FAA has "a balanced proposal that is currently under executive review." The problem is that these proposals generate public comments, which the agency needs to consider before it can issue final rules. Hampton spoke to those concerns in his testimony, saying that the agency is behind schedule on half of the act's remaining requirements.

The FAA will not be able to safely integrate UAS technology by September 2015

"Ultimately," Hampton said, "the FAA will not meet the act’s overarching goal to safely integrate UAS technology by September 2015." Hampton also testified that the reason the agency has fallen behind schedule is actually three-fold. "The agency also faces significant technological, regulatory, and management challenges," he said.

The technological problems he mentioned involve lost-link scenarios (when an operator loses connectivity with the aircraft) and establishing secure radio frequency spectrum for flight. These are things that the FAA, DoD, and NASA are working to solve, but according to Hampton "it remains unclear when the technology will be robust enough to support UAS operations." On the regulatory side, Hampton said that while the FAA has authorized limited UAS operations on a case-by-case basis, it's still not in a position to certify civil operations wholesale.

"The FAA has worked with a special advisory committee for more than nine years, but it has not yet reached consensus with stakeholders on minimum performance and design standards for UAS technology," Hampton testified. The management challenges he spoke about sounded equally dire:

The FAA lacks the training, tools, and procedures air traffic controllers need to manage UAS operations. The FAA also lacks standard databases to collect and analyze safety data from current US operators, and the severity-based classification for incident reporting.

Dillingham furthered this point in his testimony. Even though the FAA has used the establishment of UAS test sites as one of the signs that some progress is being made, Dillingham testified that there are major systemic problems at hand. According to him, "the test site operators told us that they were significantly under-utilized by the FAA and the private sector, and that they were unclear as to what research and development and operational data was needed by the FAA to support the integration initiatives." On top of that, there is legislation that restricts what data the FAA can task the test sites for — another thing that has hampered progress.

It's been speculated that the agency would miss the September 2015 deadline for a while now, and the slow pace has caused pushback from companies looking to expand into commercial drone usage. The other day, Amazon threatened to move its drone research abroad if the FAA delayed any further. Committee member Frank LoBiondo, the Republican Congressman for New Jersey's second district, directly addressed that issue during the committee hearing:

It also concerns me when I read in The Wall Street Journal about major US companies taking their UAS research and development activities to foreign countries, such as Canada and Australia, because FAA regulations are too burdensome and too slow. It also concerns me that the road builders in Germany and farmers in France today are enjoying economic benefits from UAS because safety regulators there have found ways to permit such flights. I can't help but wonder that if the Germans, the French, and the Canadians do some of these things today, then why can't we also be doing them? Are they smarter than us? I don't think so. Are they better than us? I don't think so.

Even though it looks like the FAA is going to continue to miss deadlines, the agency is still working to get rules in place for commercial drone usage by opening its proposal to public comment (if and when it gets approved). In the meantime, the agency will still have to approve commercial usage on a slow, case-by-case basis — something it continued to do this afternoon when it announced four new companies that are allowed to fly commercially.