A two-day online symposium is underway, addressing key issues around the operation of drones in the United States. Put together by the Federal Aviation Administration in conjunction with the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International (AUVSI), the opening keynote pointed to a world where the #dronesforgood hashtag has two equally relevant meanings.

Normally, this would have been an actual gathering with people talking to one another and networking. Remember that world? Obviously, with COVID-19 a lot of conferences are going online – a topic we touched on here.

The FAA’s UAS Symposium, Remotely Piloted Edition is the biggest of the moment. The keynote for the event opened with thoughts from AUVSI CEO Brian Wynne, who said “We are at a critical stage of the integration of UAS into national airspace.” 

AUVSI’s Brian Wynne, during the first half of the Symposium’s keynote address

As is common with a keynote, Wynne covered a wide array of topics that the Symposium plans to touch on in greater depth: Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM), how to renew your Part 107 Waiver, how to keep growing this rapidly advancing industry while ensuring safety of both manned aviation and people on the ground.

But Wynne also took time, first and foremost, to point out the incredible job that drones are now routinely doing around the world.

Drones are doing good work globally

“UAS have increasingly contributed to the greater good worldwide, supporting missions from disaster relief to search and rescue to humanitarian aid,” he said.

Wynne also highlighted some AUVSI research, which involved analyzing the Part 107 waivers that had been issued by the FAA. AUVSI analyzed some 4,000 different waivers and found that 87 percent of those applications had come from small businesses with fewer than 10 employees and annual revenues of less than $1 million.

“These small businesses have used drones for infrastructure inspections, real estate photography, crop surveys to improve irrigation and much more,” he said. All signs, whether from First Responders to small businesses to even larger operators, collectively point to growing interest in the tremendous potential of UAS.

“So the success we have seen with flying under part 107 and with waivers highlights the need to move beyond it. We all know that we must codify in regulations the ways in which we can use UAS in extended operations, which is why this symposium is so timely.”

Brian Wynne, AUVSI

A double meaning

The hashtag #dronesforgood, it was pointed out, means not only that drones are capable of carrying out beneficial work. It also means that drones are here for good; that the technology is here to stay. As use-case scenarios continue to increase, so too will regulations need to continually adapt to ensure that the use of this technology in controlled airspace can proceed with minimal restrictions, providing safety is assured.

“If government policies can be implemented, the potential benefits are limited only by our imagination,” Wynne told the virtual audience.

While it was clear that the vast majority of operators fly responsibly, Wynne noted that alleged incursions by drones near airports have “created disruptions and legitimate concerns.”

The FAA’s view…The FAA speaks

The keynote was split into two presentations, with the second delivered by the Executive Director of the FAA’s UAS Office, Jay Merkle.

Before getting fully into the world of drones, Merkle took a moment to acknowledge the horrific toll that COVID-19 has taken on families. As of early July, the disease had caused some 135,000 deaths as of early July and left many millions unemployed. Merkle knew there would be audience members for whom this pandemic has brought personal tragedy.

The FAA’s Jay Merkle

Offering COVID-19 condolences

“I now many of you have had losses during this time. Some of you have lost loved ones, some of you have lost jobs. My deep condolences to all of those of you who have lost a loved one. I hope you find solace and healing. For those of you who have lost work, I hope we find you a job soon and I hope we get you back to work – because we need you in this industry.”

Yet as a result of the pandemic, said Merkle, people have discovered new uses for drones – such as delivering medication and PPE at a time when it’s desirable to minimize human to human contact. Drones have also been used by at least one police department to convey information to the homeless via airborne speakers.

A drone being put to use during COVID-19 to help share information with a homeless population

These are, he said, noteworthy developments.

“Out of tragedy, innovative seeds are being planted – both on the operations side and the public perception of how drones can be used,” said Merkle.

One of the big topics these days is Remote Identification – a framework the FAA is developing to enable identifying a drone (and, presumably, its operator) electronically. He said the FAA has received some 53,000 public comments since asking for feedback in January and is currently entering the review phase of all that input.

“We’re on track to deliver Remote Identification, Operations Over People, at the end of this year,” said Merkle.

Drones are a growth industry

Merkle also pointed out that the combination of growing use-case scenarios and increasing technology packed into drones helps to spur regulations that make things easier for this speed of economic and technological growth to continue.

“The technological innovation fo tomorrow will spur advancement for all. The world is moving toward remotely piloted solutions. We’re finding new ways to utilize drones. And that will change the trajectory and pace of innovation.”

Jay Merkle, FAA

You’ve heard, no doubt, that drones are good at handling the Three D’s – work that is dirty, dull, or dangerous. Merkle touched on two of those three.

“Increasingly, drones are doing the dirty and dangerous work that people used to do,” he said – a trend that will continue. 

“Drones,” he summed up, “really are here for good.”

The symposium continues the afternoon of July 8 and for a full day July 9. You can get more information here. (If you miss this event, there will be a Part II in August.)

Have some thoughts on what drones are doing well? What about areas where operators or regulators could improve? Please leave any thoughts in the comments section! Follow author Scott Simmie on Twitter here.

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