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June 8 — Creating a new senior adviser position to tackle drone issues could help the Federal Aviation Administration improve its relationship with an industry pushing for broader use of unmanned aircraft system (UAS) technology but does not represent a panacea to the agency's drone challenges, a former FAA chief counsel said.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta recently unveiled plans to split drone oversight duties between a UAS manager and a freshly created senior advisory position.
Huerta said the new adviser would help the agency be more responsive to industry and the global regulatory community.
FAA's former UAS integration office manager Jim Williams retired from the agency this year. The new UAS manager would remain within the agency's aviation safety division while the senior adviser would report to FAA Deputy Administrator Mike Whitaker.
Former FAA Chief Counsel Kenneth Quinn said he doubted the new position would be very helpful in resolving the FAA's drone safety issues. Quinn, who is now a partner and head of the UAS team at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, raised concerns about the idea of shifting some of the agency's drone oversight functions away from the FAA's “institutional safety framework.”
“There's a history of creating separate organizational boxes to deal with whatever the latest safety challenge is,” Quinn told Bloomberg BNA, “I don't believe that moving boxes represents a panacea to the challenges that the FAA is facing.”
Quinn further noted that the new position could disappear once a new administration assumes control of the White House.
He said what the FAA really needs is more resources to speed its drone rulemaking process. Unquestionably, the FAA has diverted extra resources to and has done a “wonderful” job of expediting commercial UAS exemptions, but issuing exemptions is not an efficient way of promulgating clear rules, Quinn said.
The FAA bans broad commercial use of drones, but has issued a proposed rule that would allow drones weighing less than 55 pounds to fly in U.S. airspace. In the meantime, drone operators can apply for a commercial use exemption. The FAA had granted 524 exemptions as of June 8.
Quinn said the administration should push for additional resources for the FAA. The president's fiscal year 2016 budget request would provide $15.8 billion for the FAA, including $9.6 million for UAS research.
The House is poised to cast a final vote on a transportation spending bill June 9 that would provide the FAA with $159 million above fiscal year 2015 enacted levels. However, citing low funding levels for the Transportation Department overall, the president has threatened to veto the bill should it clear Congress.
Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition, said that while the FAA needs greater resources for its drone activities, it also has, for some time, needed a higher level position within the agency that could bring industry concerns directly to the top of the agency and the secretary of transportation.
The Small UAV Coalition's membership includes Google Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. — two of the highest profile companies to have criticized the FAA's slow rulemaking on commercial drone use.
Drobac said that he believed the FAA's creation of the new senior adviser position was in response to lawmaker and industry concerns about the lack of a high-level agency position to deal with drone regulation.
A bill (S. 1314) recently introduced by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.) would not only establish temporary guidelines for commercial drone use ahead of the FAA finalizing its regulations but also create a deputy associate administrator position to oversee UAS registration with the agency and integration into the national airspace.
“There's too much going on world-wide for this to continue to be a mid-management position,” Drobac told Bloomberg BNA. “The problem is that no one is looking at these things and reacting on a daily basis.”
Drobac said that many in industry also believe the FAA has more authority to address industry requests for commercial drone use than the agency is using. Part of the reason why top administrators within the FAA and the DOT are not responding to industry concerns is because there is no one in a senior position to make them aware of those concerns, he said.
Drobac said there have been times when the Small UAV Coalition has met with top administrators unfamiliar with the issues its members were there to discuss.
“When you have dialogue with the administrator or the secretary and some of the things are not known to them, how could they act on them?” he said.
One area that he hopes the senior adviser will address is safety testing sites. Drone operators have said the FAA's six drone safety testing sites are costly and geographically inaccessible to many companies.
That's a “great example” of where there is opportunity for the FAA to make changes and for the DOT to oversee those changes, Drobac said.
The FAA also needs someone to better coordinate collaboration between the agency and the Federal Communications Commission to make wireless spectrum available for drone operators, he said.
Brendan Schulman, an attorney with Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP, said another step the FAA could take to ease the burden on the UAS safety office would be to issue a final rule allowing commercial use of “micro” drones weighing three pounds or less. That would unburden staff dealing with exemption and waiver applications, he said.
“I have heard that the FAA has had to staff up, and offer incentive bonuses to get those processed on time,” Schulman told Bloomberg BNA. “One way to alleviate the crush and to free up the agency's resources to focus on more complicated UAS issues is to issue a set of operating rules for micro unmanned aircraft that weigh 2 kilograms or less, as many other countries have done.”
Schulman counsels the investment group UAS America Fund, which sent a petition to the FAA requesting the agency issue a final direct rule for micro unmanned aircraft.
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