With the FAA releasing their notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) on Remote ID, people have expressed a wide array of reactions from positive and agnostic to negative. Needless to say, the commercial UAV industry will likely have a lot to say in the coming 60-day commenting period.

How the government and the industry work together to develop this rulemaking will not only determine the nature of Remote ID, but will also provide the groundwork for other pieces of legislation that need to follow in order for companies to truly scale, such as beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and flights over people.

While everyone tackles this important piece of policy, Commercial UAV News sought out Karen DiMeo, Head of Policy and Government Affairs at AiRXOS, part of GE Aviation, to talk about her years of experience working for the FAA and in the commercial UAV industry in order to provide some long-range perspective on the market. Because DiMeo worked for the FAA for over two decades before crossing the aisle to the commercial UAV industry, she has a unique understanding of both sides of the regulatory equation and what it will take to get regulations to pace with technological advancements in drone technology.   

Danielle Gagne: Your history working for the FAA gives you a unique perspective from both sides of the regulatory aisle, what are some of the biggest misunderstandings, challenges, and changes required, either on the Commercial UAV side or the FAA’s side, that you have had to deal with that need to be addressed in order for regulations to open up? Are you seeing these items being addressed? If so, in what ways, and if not, why?

Karen DiMeo: I’ve worked in the unmanned segment of aviation for about 12 years, before the commercial side of the industry started to accelerate. Having the opportunity to work for both the FAA, and now the commercial side of the industry through AiRXOS, I have dual insight on our industry’s challenges.

While I was at the FAA, the initial culture toward UAVs was quite different than what we have today. The government focused on working with the military, companies, and businesses that inherently understood the National Airspace System. When the much broader commercial and recreational drone industry entered the conversation, it really opened up the world of aviation to a completely different kind of customer to deal with and serve. In my experience at the FAA, that was an unfamiliar challenge for the FAA.  I don’t think it’s any secret that it created tension between the new UAS industry that was rapidly growing and within the FAA. It seemed neither side understood each other’s perspective very well. 

Fast forward five or so years to today, and the government and the expanding UAS industry have very successfully moved past that bump together. I am excited to say that in the last few years of my 30-year career, I’ve witnessed greater changes in perspective than in the entirety of my career on all aviation topics combined. That’s a really good thing because that committed change between the FAA and the UAS industry is a ticket to the future.

From a regulatory perspective, the FAA has dedicated the last 60 years to refining manned aviation. It’s the reason why we enjoy the safest National Airspace System in the world. But UAVs are spearheading fundamental change in the aerospace ecosystem, and there has been a lot to learn on all fronts, including important considerations from the public to absorb. It took a long time to get the first regulation out for small UAS with Part 107, but since then, things have started to pace more efficiently. It may not feel like that all the time from the commercial side, but the industry is accelerating and will continue to do so.

One of the key things to unlocking commercialization is the need for operators to be identified in the system, for both safety and security reasons.  This functionality—Remote ID—took longer than the industry expected, but the FAA recently just published the Remote ID NPRM with guidelines. When it goes into effect, it’s going to be a differentiator that will propel the industry past small, isolated pockets of progress to a more scaled version of operations and use cases that all of society will benefit from.  That is why AiRXOS continues to actively dedicate resources to efforts like the ASTM F38 development of consensus standards for Remote ID, to support the FAA.

A related challenge that has been particularly elusive is how to solve the security concerns near airports. With UAS sightings that raise concerns and unfortunate incidents such as what we saw at Gatwick in 2018, there remains a pressing need to figure out how to best address this through emerging market solutions, such as promising counter UAS technologies, or what I prefer to call, UAS Security.  This has been an especially complex policy to nudge forward due to areas of legacy legislation that apply, such as wiretapping laws.  What many in the industry may not realize is that the FAA does not have jurisdiction over many of the barriers, and there remains a lot of important and complicated interests outside of the realm of UAS progress at play. However, we are seeing that other government agencies are becoming much more cohesively invested in solving these issues together, which is impressive and key for the UAS industry.  For example, representatives from the DOJ, have recently stated they are working closely with the FAA to figure out how to give additional facets of law enforcement authority to utilize some of the security technologies under development. 

Lastly, one particularly tough industry challenge that the FAA’s IPP program tried to address, is how to best implement different layers of regulatory authorities between federal, state, local, and tribal governments. With IPP slated to end this year, so far, most of those questions still remain open.  Developing efforts like the smart corridors in Ohio and New York will hopefully give us further insight into how we can operate in bigger spaces, leverage multimodal infrastructure, and cross different layers of government.  

It is always going to be difficult for policy changes to keep pace with the much faster moving business of technology innovation, but I am encouraged that we have progressive-minded leadership in the government attending to UAV progress.  Having industry and government continue to work together with transparency and mutual resolve is what will enable us to find new ways to move forward in a safe and efficient manner.

The FAA released the NPRM on Remote ID in December, how will this practically change the nature of drone operations, and how does that impact the safety of drone integration in UTM? Even with the remote ID rule, there is still a long way to go to getting commercial UAV to where we all want it to be. What still needs to get resolved by the FAA in terms of regulation and by the UAV community in terms of compliance now that the NPRM has been released?

Remote ID is a key enabler that will drive small UAS commercialization and other good uses for drone technology in the United States. Now that the Remote ID NPRM has come out, we will still have about a year of rulemaking to get through until it is final. Once the rule is in place, there will be an implementation period, currently proposed as three years.  Considering that Remote ID is necessary for scaling follow-on advanced operations in the United States, 4 years of rulemaking and implementation is a relatively long time.  We’re hopeful that the UAS industry can work with government to find a way to shorten that time frame in a safe manner.

However, that doesn’t mean the industry is waiting on Remote ID – currently the industry is looking at how we might get some advances and early scaling without Remote ID being fully implemented, for better learning and to drive new opportunities.  The Drone Advisory Committee has addressed this and has published some key recommendations. It will be interesting to see if the government acts to incentivize the community to adopt Remote ID early, because as stated, it is critical to advancing operations that make commercialization possible.

Remote ID, while a key factor in driving scalability, is still just a part of the overall commercial UAS picture.  There remains significant policy work to be done and the industry needs other parts of the UAS ecosystem to be implemented, too. From an Advanced Operations perspective, there are two key operations that need to be addressed, of which the industry is actively working through.  One is Operations Over People which is challenging because the way risk is currently analyzed is based on manned traffic.  Unmanned aviation demands a different approach.  For instance, in addition to accounting for people in the air, which we’ve always done, there are new factors to consider – like the fact that people on the ground must now be accounted for in different ways, because with UAS, aviation is a lot closer to the public. And it’s not necessarily all of the potential new problems that fold into how the FAA should examine risk, but also about the potential benefits that need to be accounted for—such as environmental benefits, and the lives that can be saved with this technology. The math for how risk is determined has to be examined through a new unmanned lens that accommodates both unmanned functionality and ecological needs.

Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) is another key regulatory area that needs to move away from being a cumbersome exception or a waiver process in order to move toward scalability. Most of the commercialized uses for drones require BVLOS to move forward.  However, while BVLOS can operate in some circumstances such as inspection of oil and gas fields, greater applications require the implementation of Remote ID.  BVLOS with Remote ID means UAS service suppliers can track where drones are to support separation of aircraft, both manned and unmanned, which clearly advances the safety chain in the airspace.  When you consider delivery services over people, it’s clear that Remoted ID coupled with BVLOS is absolutely required.  Safety is always going to be the first priority, and I think Remote ID is going to drive that fundamental change for us.

You mentioned that a major component to moving operations to scale is the development of a UAS traffic management system, what would an effective system look like to you?

We saw a lot of advancement in scale when the FAA implemented their LAANC program. LAANC essentially took the manual process of airspace authorizations—which used take the FAA weeks or months to approve—and transformed it into a streamlined process that now typically takes just seconds. This is all because the FAA digitized a part of their system and developed rule sets to make it happen, it moved the industry forward in a big way.

With this one improvement, the FAA was able to process hundreds and thousands of airspace authorizations that enabled some businesses to flourish. Previously inhibited UAS operations became easier, faster, and actually doable because of LAANC. It was a lot of work, but with the industry’s help, the FAA figured it out, and they did it really fast. That’s a model of partnership and a building block that will guide us to where we need to go with an Unmanned Traffic Management System (UTM).

UTM is expected to be a federated system of UAS service suppliers that operate cohesively together in a trusted framework with the US government to seamlessly provide traffic management. NASA has worked on developing UTM for several years with dozens of companies, and it has now moved that work over to the FAA to finalize and implement.

AiRXOS is actively delivering on UTM through our Air Mobility Platform, and participated last year in the FAA’s first activity with UTM, the UAS Pilot Program (UPP).  We look forward to collaborating with the FAA and our industry peers to help define the regulatory landscape needed to fully enable the unmanned aircraft industry through advanced operations and UTM.