The first keynote address of Silicon Valley’s Drone World Expo addressed a hot topic in the world of commercial drones: a proposed drone air traffic control system. While the FAA Pathfinder project has been working with NASA and industry partners to develop a good air traffic system for drones, ‘Avoiding the Traffic Jam: A Government and Industry UTM Update’ brought much of the team together to give the public insight into the systems being developed. The panel included David Famolari of Verizon Ventures; Mark “Hoot” Gibson of the FAA; PK Kopardekar of NASA and Dr. Dave Vos of Google X. Gretchen West, drone policy advocate at Hogan Lovells, moderated the discussion. The panelists discussed implementation, industry involvement, and progress; as well as the critical question of timing.
PK Kopardekar of NASA explained that the agency is developing performance ratings for unmanned systems, which will create a standard used by companies, operators, and insurers to determine where specific drones can be used.
At least eight other countries may be interested in adopting NASA’s approach to rating drones, giving hopes for an international standard. The NASA representative pointed out that creating a robust framework was more important than rushing out with regulations, saying: “Being first to scale is more important than being first to market. Unmanned aviation will overtake manned aviation ‘in a hurry’ and the NASA approach to regulation will scale more elegantly.”
Google’s Dave Vos says that the system may be close to implementation, and hoped that finalization would be months, not years, away. While acknowledging the resource burden on the federal agencies involved, Vos said that the industry needs to be proactive in self-regulation to assist the process.
A robust, technology-based air traffic control system for drones may take much of the regulatory burden from independent operators and help the FAA finally open the skies broadly to commercial drone companies. Near term progress is certainly good news.