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The FAA Is Making UAS Progress

It's probably not often that when James Williams, manager of the FAA's UAS Integration Office, is on a panel discussion at a national conference, his comments don’t make headlines.
By Patrick C. Miller | May 28, 2015

It’s probably not often that when James Williams, manager of the FAA's UAS Integration Office, is on a panel discussion at a national conference, his comments don’t make headlines.

But when Williams spoke during a panel on UAS traffic management at the AUVSI Unmanned Systems 2015 conference in Atlanta this month, there was more attention on what the other panel members had to say about the topic than Williams’ report on the agency’s progress.

Williams made some interesting comments that are worthy of quoting. For example, he noted that in the three years he has headed the FAA office, the staff and research budget has more than doubled.

“The FAA is very much dedicated to moving this industry forward,” Williams said. “It’s one of the administrator’s top strategic priorities to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system.”

He provided an update on the agency’s proposed rules for small UAS released earlier this year. The comment period ended April 24, and Williams said the 4,700 comments the FAA received were less than expected.

“The comments seem to be balanced between ‘You went too far’ to ‘You didn’t go far enough,’” he noted. “If you have a balance, you’re probably about right.”

So when can we expect sUAS regulations from the FAA?

“The typical timeline for significant rule-making like this is about 16 months from the close of the comment period to the final rule,” Williams said. “We’re doing everything we can inside the FAA to move faster than that. We think that long-term, we’ll get there on schedule if not sooner than the normal schedule.”

UAS operations beyond visual line-of-sight were a hot topic at the AUVSI event. Williams addressed concerns that perhaps other countries are pulling ahead of the U.S. in this area.

“I was asked how many other countries are operating beyond visual line of sight,” Williams said. “Pretty much no one is operating extensively beyond visual line of sight. There’s a little bit of dabbling in that in France, but it’s small UASs in very remote environments.”

He also pointed out that U.S. Customs and Border Protection is conducting beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations every day on the nation’s northern and southern borders.

Overall, in the realm of UAS research and development, Williams sees the glass as half full.

“There are some areas that we may be somewhat behind other countries, but in other areas we’re ahead,” he said. “All in all, the FAA has done a lot over the last three years to enable unmanned aircraft operations, but, yeah, we have a lot more to do.”

Noting that the FAA has been issuing commercial exemptions, there’s good reason to expect more progress on UAS integration.

“We’re going to be moving out on a lot of different fronts to continue to enable both large and small unmanned aircraft operations in the U.S.,” Williams concluded.