Like It Or Not, Drones Will Soon Be Buzzing Overhead

FAA chief Michael Huerta says new rules and tools for drones are being developed faster than skeptics thought possible.

By Damon Poeter

This story originally appeared on PCMag

The federal government and private partners still have lots of work to do to integrate drone aircraft into the national airspace system, but the process is moving faster than many skeptics thought possible, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said this week.

Huerta joined several government and industry representatives Monday for a panel to discuss the future of unmanned aviation at SXSW Interactive. The FAA chief announced that his agency's unmanned aircraft system (UAS) registration system for private drone operators has seen the number of registrants swell from about 180,000 hobbyists in January to nearly 400,000 in mid-March.

To put that in perspective, there are about 320,000 aircraft registered in the FAA's decades-old manned registry, Huerta said.

The FAA also released the Android version of its B4UFLY app, which drone pilots can use to determine if it's safe to fly in specific locations. An iOS version of the app was already available, and Huerta said the FAA is now making its B4UFLY app available as an open-source platform "available to the public for innovators to build on."

"Aviation and aerospace has always been about how do we innovate but also how do we collaborate," he said. "Today, we've made progress on important rules, as well as with our No Drone Zone campaigns for the Pope's visit and the Super Bowl, and with our micro-drone committee."

The FAA's MicroUAS aviation rulemaking committee is scheduled to deliver recommendations for regulating unmanned aircraft weighing under 55 pounds to the agency by April 1, he said. Huerta said the regulatory framework would be "technology neutral." That is, it will be based on how aircraft "meet certain standards of performance" regardless of how they achieve those levels, rather than a traditional framework built solely around weight and technology specifications.

"No single thing we're doing constitutes a silver bullet. Rather, we're creating a growing toolbox for integrating drones into the national airspace," he said.

Despite delays, Huerta said the FAA has achieved all of this in just six months since kicking off an aggressive new program to integrate drones into a regulatory framework, counter to predictions by skeptics that the process would be mired in "task force"-style bureaucratic meanderings for a much longer time.

What does the future hold?

The FAA chief was joined in a panel by representatives of NASA, Intel, PrecisionHawk, and Aerobo. All offered their takes on the many ways various industries and society itself could be changed by the maturation of commercial unmanned aircraft, and in particular by micro-drones. Predictions ranged from the reshaping of transport and delivery via autonomous aircraft to the potential rise of a brand-new speed sport, drone racing.

Diana Marina Cooper of PrecisionHawk, a maker of remote sensing applications and data processing services used to map safe flying routes for drones, suggested "voting by drone" -- cast a vote, send it off via drone -- and pointed to the use of remote-controlled aircraft to inspect crops and gather agricultural data.

Aerobo's Jon Ollwerther described how his company is helping change the way news is gathered with its customized, flying media-gathering platforms.

"What's going to happen is that the extraordinary is going to become commonplace," Ollwerther said. "Nobody thinks about an ambulance on the street today, but it was extraordinary thing 100, 150 years ago. Now we're seeing people get used to having drones do media gathering, whereas it was a novelty just a few years ago."

Intel's Jacqueline Lewis noted that drones were being pressed into search-and-rescue operations, "like when a hiker gets lost in the wilderness or after an avalanche." She talked up Intel's RealSense technology, which is being used to help drones avoid collisions, and which the chip giant demonstrated at CES earlier this year.

Meanwhile, John Cavolowsky, director of NASA's Airspace Operations and Safety Program, guessed that the development of new applications for micro-drones will flower in many different areas, seemingly all at once. "It won't be a linear development for little drones, but an emergence. We'll see many applications with true public benefit, in areas like safety, security, and health matters," he said.

Damon Poeter


Damon Poeter is a reporter for the PC Mag website. He's been writing about technology since the mid-2000s.

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