FAA Readies For An Autonomous Future

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“We find ourselves on the cusp of the third great era of aviation,” acting FAA administrator Daniel Elwell said on Monday—“the age of autonomous and unmanned aircraft.” In a talk at the Aero Club of Washington, Elwell said, “I’m not sure we appreciate how much of a seismic change it’s going to be—for all of us…. We want to be ready.” Elwell said he wants to create an “innovation incubator” inside the FAA, “so that good ideas don’t die on the vine.” The project would give people the freedom to tackle tough questions, and the time to figure out how new technology can be incorporated into the NAS. “If it works, we’re off to the races,” he said. “We’ll measure success by our ability to disrupt the status quo and break down obstacles—so that new ideas can be transformed into concrete actions without disturbing current operations.”

Elwell also noted the recent five-year authorization for the FAA is the longest the administration has had in more than 35 years. “It doesn’t have everything we asked for,” said Elwell. “No bill ever does. But it’s full of a lot of good things. We have a mandate to accelerate our momentum on unmanned aircraft. It clears the way to remote identification standards. It supports us moving forward on long-awaited rules for drone operations over people and at night.” The bill increases commercial space funding by 236 percent over the next five years, and empowers the FAA to create an Office of Spaceports. But Elwell noted the FAA still needs more. “We need funding reform…. The FAA hasn’t started a fiscal year with a full appropriation since 1997.” That’s “just no way to run the largest, most complex air navigation system in the world,” he said.