FAA administrator Michael Huerta said FAA is moving quickly to adapt to the demands of new technology, acknowledging that the pace of change is difficult for some in the agency.
“It’s like we’re a rubber band,” Huerta told the Aero Club of Washington DC Sept. 22. “In the right circumstances, we can really stretch far and do incredible things. But like a lot of other large organizations, as soon as we’re done, we snap back to the old way of doing business. I’ve even had some people [in FAA] tell me they can’t wait for certain initiatives to be over so they can get back to their ‘real jobs.’ But this is our real job; this is the new normal. Aviation has never stood still. And the pace of change is only going to keep accelerating. That means we need to get comfortable with always being a little uncomfortable.”
One of the areas in which FAA is moving most rapidly is unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) regulation, Huerta said. He noted that since he took the helm of FAA in January 2013, UAVs have “gone from being a niche interest to an actual segment of aviation that’s growing at an unprecedented pace … transforming industries like filmmaking and agriculture … improving the safety of our transportation infrastructure by inspecting miles of rail tracks and pipelines, and they’re tackling jobs that can be dangerous for people or other aircraft to do, such as search-and-rescue operations.”
Huerta cited FAA’s quick implementation of its recreational UAV online registration system in late 2015, which was announced in October 2015 and went live Dec. 21, 2015, as an example of the agency’s capability.
“Getting it done required some outside-the-box thinking within the FAA,” Huerta said. “We didn’t let well-worn internal processes dictate how we’d achieve our goal. Instead, we charted new paths … solicit[ing] advice from a task force of heavy-hitters from the aviation and technology industries. Daily meetings between employees at every level of the agency improved coordination and allowed for real-time troubleshooting.”
Nine months later, over 550,000 recreational operators of small UAVs have registered. “To put that in perspective, we only have 320,000 registered manned aircraft—and it took us 100 years to get there,” Huerta said.
Huerta noted that the Drone Advisory Committee (DAC), chaired by Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, had its first meeting last week to start mapping out future UAV regulations and policies. The DAC is modeled after the NextGen Advisory Committee, which advises FAA on air traffic modernization.
Huerta said FAA continues to make progress on the implementation of the satellite-based NextGen air traffic control (ATC) system. “We’re on track to meet our NextGen objectives by 2025,” he said, adding, “A transformative project like NextGen is … not easy. One of my predecessors compared it to changing the tire on a moving car, [but] I’d amend that slightly. It’s like changing the engine on a moving jetliner, at altitude.”
Huerta said NextGen’s DataComm technology—through which air traffic controllers and pilots transmit flight plans and other essential safety messages by text instead of radio transmissions—had such positive results following trials at New York Newark and Memphis airports that the NextGen Advisory Committee urged FAA to prioritize DataComm and make it available more quickly and at more locations.
“At the beginning of this year, DataComm was operational at five airports,” Huerta said. “Today, it’s up and running at 44 air traffic control towers nationwide, including major markets like New York, Los Angeles, and right here in Washington DC. We plan to have it in more than 50 towers by the end of 2016. That’s nearly two years ahead of schedule. We estimate that DataComm will save operators more than $10 billion over the next 30 years—along with saving the FAA about $1 billion.”
Huerta noted that some improvements enabled by NextGen advances have created new problems. Noise complaints from communities around airports are on the rise following NextGen-related changes in flight patterns and increases in night-time flight operations.
“We’ve seen an increasing level of public debate, political interest, and even litigation related to aircraft noise,” Huerta said, adding FAA has stepped up its public engagement efforts and recently held public meetings in the Cleveland, Detroit and Washington DC areas. “We need to work together to engage communities early and often—and that means meeting them where they live,” he said.
Huerta said FAA is redefining its role as a regulator: “For a long time, the FAA told manufacturers how to build a safe airplane. We required specific technologies with precise design elements. But this system became strained as the industry evolved. Manufacturers kept coming to us with new ideas, and our certification processes struggled to keep up. It became obvious that we needed to overhaul our approach to certifying aircraft if we wanted to increase safety and to help products get to market faster.”
On multiple fronts, FAA is evolving, Huerta said. “We’re not waiting around to find the best way to respond to a specific innovation,” he explained. “We’re creating an organization that can respond nimbly and flexibly to any innovation. This approach lets the dreamers and innovators do what they do best. We don’t want bureaucratic red tape to hamper their progress. On the contrary—we want to support it.”