Exclusive interview: what it’s like being on the FAA’s drone advisory board


Photo/Sally French

Last week we wrote about Flyspan Systems, a new startup whose founders have a background in government work in drones. Today we speak with Brock Christoval, who sits on the advisory board, which is working to integrate unmanned systems into the national airspace.

The FAA is working to create a set of operating procedures in order to adhere to a Congressional mandate for the FAA to regulate sharing the skies between drones and commercial airlines. Congress set a deadline of September 2015 for the regulations to be laid out.

The document is being created based on input given by a variety of people including drone manufacturers, researchers and NASA.

On that advisory board is Brock Christoval, a former military engineer who focused on the experimental side of UAVs and the co-founder of drone consulting startup Flyspan Systems. He revealed never-before-told insights of what will be in the document, as background into the process behind writing the document that has generated huge controversy in the drone community.

“The 2015 goal is to come up with the minimum operating procedures,” Christoval said. “It outlines the procedures we need to bring this technology to the national airspace.”

Creating the document isn’t easy, Christoval points out.

“It’s a very technical process,” he said. “We have a lot of people there that are inputting their background and knowledge into that document. A lot of times we want to rely heavily on research, but you’ve got to go out and test this in real life.

The advisory board is less political, and more a hub of technical jargon floating around. But that doesn’t make it any easier to get that document completed, he said.

“I think some of that might actually be slowing us down, because engineers and scientists like to over think things,” he said.”

That’s not to say there’s not some level of bureaucracy involved, Christoval said, citing concerns many drone operators have over the FAA’s transparency.

“The FAA is huge, and this task they have is huge,” he said. “I don’t think anybody would refute the fact that there’s a lot of bureaucracy and a lot of red tape, but it’s also a huge responsibility. That prevents any conflict when you want things done efficiently and effectively but you also want it done safely.”

Among the major points being debated among the advisory board is airspace bandwidth.

“It’s the number of aircraft that should be flying — a certain amount of bandwidth is going to be divided per aircraft, per area,” said Vinny Capobianco, the co-founder of Flyspan Systems.

In a time when drone legislation is a gray area, where the FAA lost in a lawsuit between drone operator Raphael Pirker (who goes by Trappy), the goal is to get some sort of document out.

“With the ongoing legislation and push by commercial markets to get this document out as soon as possible, the heat is definitely on us to turn it up and get some progress made,” Christoval said.

Christoval said he is eager for the document to be complete and available to the public.

“There’s a lot of pressure, but there is a deadline and we’re all sort of honing in on that,” he said. “Even besides that, you can still achieve some integration of unmanned vehicles today, especially.”

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