The rapid growth in drone (uncrewed aircraft systems) use for civilian and commercial purposes presents opportunities and challenges for federal agencies.
The emergence of drones (unmanned or uncrewed aircraft systems) can provide significant social and economic benefits in the United States. Drones can deliver packages, help fight fires, and provide other benefits. For example, drones were used for contactless distribution of personal protective equipment and medical supplies at hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic. Drones also have a variety of military uses, such as supporting Department of Defense efforts to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
Growth in drone use is expected to increase dramatically in the future. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has forecasted that the commercial drone fleet (drones operated in connection with a business) will reach 828,000, and the recreational fleet (drones operated for personal enjoyment) will number around 1.48 million, by 2024. Consequently, the FAA is working to address a number of issues to ensure that drones are safely integrated into the nation’s airspace.
FAA’s Areas of Focus for Integrating Drones
- Demands on the FAA’s staff and resources are increasing as the agency works to ensure the safety of drones. FAA needs to ensure that its workforce has the critical skills needed to respond to such technology changes. The administration and Congress could also set user fees to help FAA recover costs.
- A key effort to integrating drones into the national airspace will be the development of a drone traffic management system for drone flights at lower altitudes. The FAA is working with industry and stakeholders, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, to develop such a system. The agency recently concluded a pilot of the system, and plans to use the results to evaluate technologies and create an implementation plan. However, FAA has yet to provide timelines and upcoming steps to stakeholders.
- FAA safety inspectors view local law enforcement as a key resource when investigating potentially unsafe drone use. To ensure that law enforcement agencies know what information to share with FAA and how to respond to incidents, FAA has begun to focus on better educating and communicating with local law enforcement on their role in drone investigations.
- As FAA continues toward safe integration of drones, complex legal, technical, and policy questions will have to be resolved. The law regarding a number of drone jurisdiction and privacy matters is in a state of flux, both because the federal government is still developing key aspects of safety and security requirements and because there have been relatively few court decisions addressing whether these requirements are consistent with statutory authorities.
Scenario Simulating a Drone Traffic Management System in Real-World Situations
- In the near future, Advanced Air Mobility services could fill the skies with small, highly automated aircraft that can take off and land vertically with or without a pilot onboard. A number of issues need to be addressed by industry and the federal government to make this a reality. These steps include FAA approval of new aircraft designs, construction of landing and other ground infrastructure to charge and service this aircraft, and development of training and certification standards for pilots and technicians.
Examples of Two Aircraft Proposed for Advanced Air Mobility Services
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