Droneport Approval Sought From FAA

By Stephanie Beasley

Sept. 27 — The Federal Aviation Administration should support efforts to create a “droneport” where unmanned aircraft systems can land and take off, according to a consultant on commercial drone applications.

Jonathan Daniels, CEO and founder of Praxis Aerospace Concepts International Inc., told members of the House Small Business Committee’s investigation, oversight and regulations subpanel at a Sept. 27 hearing that the company is hoping to partner with the FAA to develop a droneport in Boulder City, Nev.

The drone industry is expected to grow rapidly now that the FAA has issued regulations allowing the use of small commercial drones, and that means it will likely be necessary to schedule drone flights to manage the large number of anticipated flights, Daniels said. He said the droneport would include runways and taxiways.

FAA Reviewing Droneport Plan

The facility would initially be used to test drone landings and departures at a safe distance from manned aircraft and could eventually become the model for similar facilities throughout the country, Daniels said. He added that Amazon and other companies seeking to launch drone delivery services wouldn't be able to operate steady flights from distribution centers without a place for landing and taking off.

Operating an airport with protected airspace requires FAA approval. Daniels said the company submitted its application for the Boulder City droneport to the FAA last December. The agency has been supportive of efforts to develop the droneport, but it has not yet approved the application, according to Daniels. A drone airport would be precedent-setting, so the delays are understandable, he said.

“The [airport] rules don't support unmanned aircraft,” Daniels told Bloomberg BNA. “Airports are categorized by tonnage of cargo and number of passengers. How can I do that with a drone?”

The state of Nevada already has six FAA drone test sites. It also is the home state of Rep. Crescent Hardy (R), chairman of the subcommittee that held the hearing. He said he worried that uncertainty about FAA regulation on drones had slowed industry progress in the area.

FAA Tries to Address Growing Demand

The FAA has seen a spike in applications for commercial drone pilot certification since the agency released the small commercial drone rule in August (See previous story, 09/19/16). And FAA Administrator Michael Huerta recently said the number of recreational and commercial drone user listed in a federal registry has leaped to more than 500,000. There could be more than 7 million drones flying in the U.S. by 2020, the agency has said.

Huerta said the FAA plans to implement a flexible framework to deal with the emergence of new aviation technology, including drones. Earlier this month, the agency convened the first meeting of an advisory group that includes industry members to help speed the development of drone regulations.

Lawmakers should do more to spur innovation, said Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. The FAA's small drone regulations have provided some certainty, as have provisions that Congress passed in a short-term FAA reauthorization extension in July, which call for more drone research and development initiatives, Wynne said. Still, he encouraged lawmakers to pass a long-term FAA reauthorization next year that would set a “glide path” for the industry by addressing outstanding issues like federal authorization for drone flights beyond the operator's line of sight, flights over people and flights at night. All of those activities are banned under FAA regulations, although the agency is granting exemption waivers to certain operators.

Drone Investment on the Rise

During the hearing, Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the full committee, asked how Congress might encourage investment in the development of drone technology.

Lawmakers can be helpful by providing funding and regulatory oversight to the FAA as well as funding for the development of drone infrastructure that would include traffic management systems and wireless spectrum, said Lisa Ellman, head of the global unmanned aircraft systems group at Hogan Lovells in Washington.

Ellman said drone investments dipped last year amid uncertainty about the regulatory landscape, but there will likely be an upsurge now that the FAA has implemented regulations. She told Bloomberg BNA that key investment areas would likely include safety-related software and hardware like geo-fencing, collision avoidance technology and propeller guards.

“Funders are looking to aggressively fund more companies in the drone market, and this is a great thing,” she said. “And with this increased regulatory certainty—it was a huge step forward—investors understand the market is really going to grow and quickly.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Beasley in Washington sbeasley@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

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