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Data-based Decison Making

By Danielle Corbett
Source: FAA Safety Briefing, Sept/Oct 2020

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), also known as drones, are a burgeoning industry. UAS operations are fast increasing in number, technical complexity, and sophistication. The FAA is working to incrementally integrate UAS into the National Airspace System (NAS) in a way that assures the safety of people and property, both in the air and on the ground. The FAA’s Unmanned Integration Office (AUS) has the task of coordinating those efforts.

With the exponential growth of UAS technologies and applications over the past few years, research has expanded to keep pace and better enable the FAA to support full integration. Applied research will inform the integration path, which is intended to enable increasingly more complex UAS operations over time.

In order to promote applied research, the FAA established the Integration Pilot Program (IPP), a government focused initiative, and the Partnership for Safety Program (PSP), an industry-focused initiative.

Integration Pilot Program

Launched in 2017, the IPP offers a pathway for state, local, and tribal governments to partner with private sector entities (e.g., operators as well as manufacturers) to accelerate the safe integration of UAS operations. In May 2018, the Secretary of Transportation announced ten Lead Participants for the IPP:

  • Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (Durant, Oklahoma)
  • City of San Diego (San Diego, California)
  • Virginia Tech — Center for Innovative Technology (Herndon, Virginia)
  • Kansas Department of Transportation (Topeka, Kansas)
  • Lee County Mosquito Control District (Ft. Myers, Florida)
  • Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority (Memphis, Tennessee)
  • North Carolina Department of Transportation (Raleigh, North Carolina)
  • North Dakota Department of Transportation (Bismarck, North Dakota)
  • City of Reno (Reno, Nevada)
  • University of Alaska-Fairbanks (Fairbanks, Alaska)

The Lead Participants serve as the primary point of contact with the FAA, and they partner with private sector companies and organizations to carry out their operations. The IPP tests and evaluates various models of involvement in development and enforcement of federal regulations for UAS operations. It informs development of future federal guidelines and regulatory decisions on UAS operations nationwide.

IPP operations focus on Detect and Avoid (DAA) technologies, Command and Control (C2) links, navigation, weather, and human factors. Examples of use include agriculture, commerce, emergency management, human transportation, and other sectors. Part of the FAA’s role is to emphasize the need to balance the benefits of innovation with the need to protect national security, public safety, critical infrastructure and the NAS. The IPP will close out in October 2020.

Partnerships for Safety Program

Established in 2019, the PSP is the next integration step to transition from the IPP. PSPs are an industry-focused partnership. Through a three-year agreement, the FAA works directly with companies to research and develop applications and operations that will support decisions and rulemaking. Companies go through a rigorous selection process and demonstrate innovative concepts that will contribute to increasingly more complex UAS operations. These operations include: Operations Over People, Expanded Operations (beyond visual line of sight, swarms, and on-airport operations), Small UAS Package Delivery Operations, Large Carrier Cargo Operations, and Passenger Transport Operations.

PSP entrants provide data and research that is applied to technical standards development. In return, they receive FAA guidance as well as authorization for experimental operations. The data helps answer several questions about UAS Integration: What kind of aircraft are best suited for certain operations? What is the durability and reliability of specific aircraft? What standards do we need for aircraft? What safety standards are necessary?

Data on new aspects of operation is critical to the step-by-step approach to UAS integration. The agency continuously applies lessons from the IPP and PSP to UAS decision making, rulemaking, and standards development. Program participants contribute to the FAA’s research needs and foster a meaningful dialogue between local and national interests. While many challenges remain, the flexibility and innovation that the IPP and PSP offer will play a major role in facilitating safe and successful UAS integration.

Danielle Corbett is an aviation safety inspector with the FAA’s Office of Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

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