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News and Commentary.  In a widely publicized FAA-funded report titled Assessing the Risks of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) concludes that the FAA approach to drone certifications and approvals is “overly stringent.”

This isn’t a shock to most of the drone industry.  Patrick Byrnes, a Partner in Chicago law firm Locke Lord’s Litigation Department and a member of the Aviation & Defense Group, speaks for many industry stakeholders when he says that: “The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s report finding that the FAA has taken an “overly conservative approach to safety risk assessments” in attempting to integrate the commercial use of drones into the National Airspace System is a very welcome development, and echoes what many in the industry have been saying for years.”

The report is isn’t just a critique of current drone regulations, it’s damning in its evaluation of the risk-averse culture at FAA and the effect that it has had on the drone industry.  The “near zero-tolerance for risk,” says the NASEM release, developed for the manned aviation industry, has prevented many beneficial drone applications from being utilized in the United States: the report calls for “top-to-bottom change in management processes” to move towards a different risk analysis framework.

This report piles on to the recent Government Accountability Office report, which said that the FAA lacked good data on safety incidents and did not have a good way of investigating or vetting any reports.  The NASEM report is still more critical, saying that the FAA is essentially basing drone regulations on opinion and guesswork.   “…the lack of empirical data in this emerging industry means the current FAA approaches to UAS risk management are based fundamentally on qualitative and subjective risk analysis,” says NASEM.

The report says that current methodology for assessing risk “tends to overestimate the severity and likelihood of risks from many types of drone operations,” and “can be a significant barrier to introduction and development of this emerging and rapidly changing technology.”

Safety is the priority at FAA.  It’s entirely appropriate in the agency responsible for passenger jet planes – one accident could cost hundreds of lives.  However, one crash of a lightweight drone might (or might not) dent something: it isn’t necessarily appropriate to apply the same thought processes for the burgeoning drone industry.

“FAA needs to accelerate its move away from the ‘one size fits all’ philosophy for UAS operations,” said George Ligler, proprietor of GTL Associates and chair of the committee that authored the report. “The FAA’s current methods for safety and risk management certainly ensure safety within the manned aircraft sector, but UASs present new and unique challenges and opportunities, which make it important for the agency to take a broader view on risk analysis.”

The NASEM committee views drones – in my view, more appropriately – as closer to cars than to manned aircraft, and suggests that they be treated as such when evaluating risk.  “The report urges FAA to understand the threshold of risk that the public is likely to accept for small drones, in the same context as other levels of publicly accepted risks for activities such as traveling by car, swimming in the ocean, or walking across the street,” says the report. “Such an approach can particularly help establish appropriate safety standards for many UASs beyond those currently defined in FAA’s regulation that governs relatively small-sized drones, the most common types flying today.”

That the report authors felt the current approach has been damaging to the industry is also clear.  “Overly stringent certification and operational approval requirements for drone operations that are relatively low risk have the potential for placing unnecessary burden on the business case and implementation timeline for those operations, stifling innovation,” Ligler added.

The report, clearly critical and providing ample damning quotes for the drone media, may scratch an itch for industry stakeholders frustrated with the pace of drone integration.  However, the FAA has other constituents to appease – and they are advocating for more, not less, security around drones.

Matthew Kalas, another attorney in Locke Lord’s Litigation Department, says the report
“…may be more pabulum than real food for thought.”

“The Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee just a few days prior heard testimony on the pressing need to address the security risks posed by drones, yet the Academies’ assumed as a “guiding principle” to its report that the “introduction of UAS [drones] will not degrade safety or security,”” says Kalas. “So which is it, unaddressed security risk or minor problem?”

He has a point.  With the drone industry and lawmakers hoping for economic development on one side, and Homeland Security and the Department of Defense on the other, the FAA is between the proverbial rock and hard place.  Directing the FAA to “expand its perspective” may not be particularly effective, however much desired.

“The committee calls for FAA to establish and publish specific guidelines within the next 12 months for implementing a predictable, repeatable, quantitative risk-based process for certifying UAS systems and aircraft and granting operations approval,” says NASEM. “The administration should expand its perspective on quantitative risk assessment to look more holistically at the total safety risk. For example, FAA should consider the safety benefit that accrues when a drone allows for cell tower inspections without the need for a human to climb the tower. ”

How far the FAA will go in changing its risk assessments as a result of the report is unknown.  But the largely academic committee that authored it has added another voice to those asking for more progress in drone integration.

“This study was sponsored by the FAA, and hopefully the FAA will take its findings to heart as it moves forward in this important area,” says Byrnes.

Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
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