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.”

Mike Whitak­er

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)