According to the report, mandated by Congress, the FAA’s rules for commercial drone operations are too strict, preventing the society to benefit from the life-saving potential unmanned aerial systems (UAS) offer. Instead of adhering to a near-zero risk tolerance, the agency should balance the risks associated with drones with their potential advantages. The report urges the FAA to compare the risk posed by small drones to other risks the public is willing to accept such as driving a car, crossing a street or swimming in the ocean.

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Report urges “top-to-bottom’ changes

The study, “Assessing the Risk of Integrating Unmanned Aircraft Systems into the National Airspace System” was conducted by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine which are private non-profit institutions that provide “independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions.”

The report was written by a 14-member panel of academics, researchers and aviation experts. Industry representatives were in the minority, according to the WSJ.

Even though top management of the FAA said during the FAA Symposium in Baltimore three months ago that: “The FAA is open for business”, mid-level managers “fear making a mistake”, because they believe that “allowing new risk could endanger their careers even when that risk is so minimal.” This near-zero risk tolerance stifles the effective and speedy integration of drones into the National Airspace.

The report states that instead of solely focusing on what might go wrong, the FAA needs to develop a holistic approach and balance the potential dangers of drone operations with the benefits that they offer.

George Ligler, proprietor of GTL Associates and chair of the committee that conducted the study said:

“FAA needs to accelerate its move away from the ‘one size fits all’ philosophy for UAS operations. The FAA’s current methods for safety and risk management certainly ensure safety within the manned aircraft sector, but UASs present new and unique challenges and opportunities, which make it important for the agency to take a broader view on risk analysis.”

“Overly stringent certification and operational approval requirements for drone operations that are relatively low risk have the potential for placing unnecessary burden on the business case and implementation timeline for those operations, stifling innovation.”

The committee is asking the FAA urgently to: “establish and publish specific guidelines within the next 12 months for implementing a predictable, repeatable, quantitative risk-based process for certifying UAS systems and aircraft and granting operations approval.” Furthermore, the committee recommends that within six months the agency commits to “reviewing risk assessments so the proponents receive timely feedback.”

Lastly, the report suggests that the FAA should undertake: “a top-to-bottom change in management processes with the aim of moving smartly to a risk-based decision-making organization with clearly defined lines of authority, responsibility, and accountability.”

Mr. Ligler said that even if the FAA would embrace and move to implement the new risk-reward balanced approach to drone operations, it would take the agency “three to five years to move to where we think we ought to be” in terms of oversight.” A timeframe that does not seem to match with the urgency with which companies like Amazon, Boeing, Airbus, General Electric, Zipline, Intel and Alphabet/Google would like to see their proposed drone operations take off.

The pressure is on the FAA to create a regulatory framework and risk-balanced management approach that will allow for safe commercial drone operations to be integrated into the National Airspace quickly and effectively.

Are you a commercial drone operator? What do you think about the current FAA rules and waiver process? Let us know in the comments below.

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