FAA won’t meet 2015 deadline for drone safety

Michael Huerta

Bart Jansen, USA Today

WASHINGTON — Federal watchdogs told a House panel Wednesday that the Federal Aviation Administration won’t meet its 2015 deadline for having drones fly safely in the same space as commercial jets.

However, the head of the FAA says drones would be phased into the skies gradually.

Congress set the deadline to spur integration of drones into the skies, with projections for $82 billion in economic activity over the next decade. But after the FAA set a five-year road map and designated six groups to run drone tests last year, significant work remains to ensure that drones don’t crash into other aircraft.

“The agency will not meet the September 2015 deadline for safe (drone) integration and it is uncertain when this will be achieved,” Calvin Scovel III, the Transportation Department’s inspector general, told the House Transportation subcommittee on aviation.

Scovel cited “significant technological barriers,” such as having drones detect and avoid other aircraft, and remaining linked to their remote pilots. He also said that air-traffic controllers contend that existing automation can’t handle drone flight plans.

Gerald Dillingham, director of civil aviation for the Government Accountability Office, said the FAA hasn’t defined the safety and performance standards it needs from the six test groups, or how data will be collected and analyzed.

“While progress is being made, there are some significant hurdles and challenges that FAA must still overcome to fully integrate” drones into national airspace, Dillingham said. “Given the status of these efforts, stakeholders remain concerned about FAA’s ability to meet the 2015 timeline.”

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told lawmakers that drones will be approved in phases. He said technology is developing rapidly, and that regulators will learn from the six test groups.

“We won’t get to a point where there will be one day where suddenly everyone can operate anything anytime,” Huerta said. “But as we go through the certification and qualification process, there will be classes of these aircraft that we will be able to introduce.”

Lawmakers asked whether Huerta would need a deadline extension. “I don’t want you to feel jammed by an artificial deadline created by Congress,” said Rep. Pete DeFazio, D-Ore.

Huerta didn’t ask for a delay, but said drones will be approved in stages, “with the overriding concern that we want to maximize the highest levels of safety.”