During last week’s AUVSI Xponential 2023 Drone Convention, Billy Nolen, the Acting FAA Administrator, gave a keynote speech which both heartened and concerned those involved in the burgeoning drone and AAM industries, reports a press release. He remarked, “The reality of drones and AAM are much closer than we thought, but a lot of work must be done, before this vision can be fully realised.”
After the FAA recently released an updated blueprint for Urban Air Mobility (UAM), Nolen spoke last Wednesday at the drone convention, offering a broader review of the agency’s “aviation revolution” vision for the future. He said that while the FAA will release an AAM Implementation Plan later this month, the all-important and critical Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flight rules for drones are still some way off in the future.
The Implementation Plan is to help enable “initial” operations and clarify responsibilities for AAM stakeholders, while laying out the infrastructure and capabilities required alongside other air traffic. Nolen explained, “If you’re looking for the code to the front door of the next generation of aviation, here it is. These documents are a hard look at what it’s going to take to have an air taxi safely take you where you need to go.”
These “initial services” include making use of existing helicopter routes and infrastructure like helipads. Once the plan is released, the FAA will work with the industry to refine a strategy for AAM to get off the ground, where flying taxis will be in our skies within five years.
Will Midnight Be Flying Over New York and Chicago in 2025? (Credit: Archer Aviation)
Two problems then. Is Archer flying short haul flights over New York and Chicago during 2025 an actual reality, for example? And the belief from some quarters of the drone industry that BVLOS will be widely granted this year, actually going to happen? As ever with any new industry, the time factor is usually a sticking point, where hope is often stronger than reality. Even so, Nolen offered an olive branch by stating, “When it comes to advanced air mobility, we expect to see great demand for these operations by the time the Los Angeles Olympics take place in 2028.”
He echoed the concerns that everyone holds in the UAM industry, when he pointed out that because air taxi services will carry people, a single accident could derail public confidence in the technology, even more so than drones. Therefore, safety, safety, safety.
Speaking of drones, Nolen had much to say. “We’ve made good progress over the past few years. We’ve enacted the Remote ID rule, and the Operations Over People rule, but to unleash the full potential of drones, we need to enable routine operations beyond the operators visual line of sight.”
But here comes the nub.
The agency still has not set a date to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for BVLOS, and Nolen acknowledged the criticism from some industry stakeholders that the agency isn’t moving fast enough. Yet he countered the alleged “slow pace” due to safety concerns by pointing to Matternet’s groundbreaking FAA certification as a sign of progress. The agency also awarded a similar approval to Percepto earlier this week.
Matternet’s M2 Delivery Drone (Credit: Matternet)
Nolen continued,“We’re in the early stages of developing the rule. We’ve received a lot of input from stakeholders and the public over the past year,” referring to the FAA’s BVLOS Advisory Rule-Making Committee. “Our initial focus is on normalising standard operations for BVLOS flights at low altitudes. This will enable drone use for functions like infrastructure inspections and agricultural operations.”
He explained the FAA will tackle the integration of drone delivery services into complex airspace, only until a set of BVLOS rules is finalised. Meanwhile, the agency will continue to grant provisional waivers and expects these requests to increase.
Given Nolen is soon to step down as Acting Administrator, he told the Xponential crowd, “I’m honoured to have helped lead the safety and integration efforts for this new era and to have been a part of bringing about the resulting benefits to the public. I’m looking forward to seeing how things come together over the next few years and beyond.”
It remains unclear who the new successor will be. This lack of clarity concerns the industry who question whether the new appointment may share Nolen’s philosophy on AAM and whether his present plans will come to fruition. It is vital the successor shares a similar vision, otherwise, the industry could risk more regulatory gridlock.
There are rumours that Mike Whitaker, the COO of Supernal, who served as FAA Deputy Administrator and Chief Nextgen Officer under the Barack Obama administration, and helped modernise the country’s air traffic control system, is a potential candidate. Whitaker also brings close to two decades of experience as a lawyer and executive in the airline industry. Yet, is this simply wishful thinking from the industry?
Beyond the impending leadership transition, the FAA faces another problem. In September, its current funding and authority are set to expire and a new FAA Reauthoration Act needs to be passed. Like with so many Authorities, fresh funding is badly required, where its budget and priorities need to be set for the next five years. Could this detrimentally affect the AAM industry?
Present hopes are on Whitaker to take over from Nolen. Fingers crossed.
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(Top image: FAA)