If you don’t like the current BVLOS rules, you’re not alone. FAA Administrator Steve Dickson doesn’t like them either.
Dickson led a keynote speech on Tuesday at Day 1 of the AUVSI XPONENTIAL 2021 conference in Atlanta, Georgia. His speech was named “Policy Leading to Trusted Integration,” and while the tone was largely hopeful, Dickson took a bit to acknowledge that the current BVLOS rules are far from ideal in enabling the drone industry to prosper.
“They’re not up to the task,” Dickson said in his speech in reference to current BVLOS rules. “For one thing, approving operations on a case-by-case basis is not a feasible or efficient way forward. It’s not feasible or efficient for the agency. It’s not efficient for manufacturers. And it doesn’t give us the kind of certainty that we really need to scale operations around the national airspace.”
Dickson also acknowledged that regulation is often seen as a “drag” on the drone industry’s momentum.
But for what it’s worth, he gave some reason to why things might feel slow for what is otherwise a fast-moving industry: safety. Safety has always been at the forefront of the FAA. And Dickson said that in order to enable the drone industry to advance, the public must trust the drone industry, which requires no safety mishaps. He said in his speech that — since taking the reigns at the FAA back in 2019 — he’s “become a firm believer that smart and fair regulation” will aid in the safe integration of drones into the airspace. And with that, attention to safety can never be relaxed, he said.
“The public fully expects all aspects of aviation to be as safe as commercial airlines,” Dickson said. “Businesses and operators who don’t understand that reality are not going to be in business for long.”
Luckily, drones have had few mishaps that could potentially erode the general public’s trust. And while COVID-19 was certainly brutal for the drone industry, in some ways its contactless, inherently-social-distanced setup helped improve its position in the eyes of the public. Companies like Zipline used drones to distribute medications and PPE between hospitals. Walmart, Quest Diagnostics and drone delivery company DroneUp teamed up to send COVID-19 at-home self-collection testing kits to homes in Las Vegas. Even something as simple as Google-sister company Wing’s coffee deliveries could make someone’s day if they can’t leave their home.
“With that backdrop, we’ve now built a solid foundation for what I think are some amazing things to come,” Dickson said. “We’ll be working on rules for BVLOS, beyond visual line of sight, and that’s really the holy grail of scalable drone operations.”
FAA chief Dickson came by way of a leadership role at Delta Air Lines, where he had spent the past nearly three decades. He graduated from the Class of 1979 at the United States Air Force Academy as well as Georgia State University College of Law. While on active duty, he flew the T-38 Talon supersonic jet trainer and F-15 Eagle fighter jet.
What’s next for BVLOS rules?
Good news for what sounds like everyone: progress is being made on improving current BVLOS rules. Earlier this summer, the FAA announced its new BVLOS Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC). The committee, which was created to help the FAA develop a regulatory path for routine BVLOS flights, is supposed to provide recommendations for regulatory requirements to normalize safe, scalable, economically viable, and environmentally-friendly drone flights.
“I’ve been very pleased with the tone and the diligence and the cohesion, the collaboration, of industry within that ARC,” Dickson said.
The committee is expected to propose recommendations later this year.