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A UAS Tipping Point?

By Patrick C. Miller | May 07, 2015

The past three days at the AUVSI Unmanned 2015 conference in Atlanta have been a blur of speakers, panels, events and high-tech exhibits demonstrating the tremendous range and scope of innovation in the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) industry.

What really stands out is what I didn’t hear that I expected to hear. That was speculation about what the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration might do, criticism on what it had done and negativity about how it wasn’t moving fast enough to commercialize and integrate UAS into the national airspace.

To be sure, the agency didn’t entirely escape scrutiny. In his remarks to the general session on Wednesday, Congressman Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., made it clear that he wasn’t happy with the slow pace of the FAA’s UAS integration efforts. He urged attendees to work with their elected representatives in Congress to put pressure on the agency.

But for the most part, the buzz I heard was about what government, industry and researchers were doing to advance the technology. There was a wealth of exciting developments and discussion about opportunities ahead, some of which we’ll be writing about in the coming days.

Unlike other UAS events I’ve attended, I don’t recall anyone I spoke to saying, “If only the FAA would…”

In fact, I attended a panel on UAS traffic management capabilities that included James Williams, manager of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office. I thought that if there was going to be any rancor directed at the agency, it would be there. To my pleasant surprise, the panel was not only interesting and informative, but there was also a constructive give and take, as well as a healthy exchange of ideas.

And then, almost as a counterpoint to LoBiondo’s remarks, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta showed up at the AUVSI event for a news conference to announce Project Pathfinder. In partnership with the agency, CNN will test UAS for news gathering while PrecisionHawk and BNSF will conduct research on beyond-line-of-sight operations.

So perhaps just as we’ve reached a point at which each new FAA announcement of a COA or Section 333 exemption is no longer major news, it might well be that viewing the FAA as the most significant impediment to the advancement of the UAS industry is nearing an end.

Let’s hope so. I’d much rather write and talk about what the UAS industry is doing rather than what the FAA isn’t doing.