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FAA and Swiss Federal Office of Civil Aviation Sign Agreement to Collaborate on Integrating Drones into National Airspace

BY Zacc Dukowitz
22 July 2020

The FAA recently announced an agreement with the Switzerland Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA) to harmonize “domestic and international safety standards for drones.”

The announcement was made at the 2020 FAA UAS Symposium, which was co-hosted by AUVSI and conducted virtually due to the pandemic.

UAS activities are now accepted worldwide as a vital sector of aviation. This U.S./Swiss agreement continues the move forward of the safe, efficient, and internationally harmonized integration of these vehicles into the world’s airspace.

– Jay Merkle, Executive Director of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office

Under the agreement, the FAA’s UAS Integration Office will collaborate with the FOCA’s Innovation and Digitalization Unit of Switzerland. The details of the partnership are laid out in a Declaration of Intent that both organizations have signed.

Photo credit: Matternet

While the overarching goal of the collaboration is the safe integration of drones into the national airspace, the document lays out a fairly long list of proposed UAS-related areas for collaboration, including:

  • UAS Traffic Management (UTM). To include UTM concept validation and testing.
  • Airworthiness. To include structural integrity, design & construction standards, power plant standards, environmental suitability, inspections, repair standards, and operating limitations.
  • Control and Communications (C2). To include the development of appropriate C2 links between unmanned aircraft and ground control stations, data link management, spectrum analysis, and frequency management.
  • Detect and Avoid. To include issues related to the detection of potential threats to remain well-clear and to avoid collisions.
  • Training. To include the investigation and development of crewmember and visual observer training and certification requirements.

[Read the Declaration of Intent to get a full list of all the areas in which the two organizations will be collaborating.]

The Declaration is broad in scope, allowing for additional research into new topics as the two organizations decide. A noteworthy aspect of the agreement is that it allows for the two organizations to exchange personnel as needed to pursue the “cooperative activities described.”

According to the Declaration of Intent, the two organizations have the following goals for the collaboration:

  • To engage in research and development
  • To exchange ideas, personnel, and information
  • To provide coordination with other government entities and stakeholders
  • To collaborate on other initiatives and projects determined to be of mutual interest and benefit in relation to UAS operations

Why Switzerland?

To our knowledge, this is the first formal collaboration the FAA has ever made with another country’s civil aviation authority when it comes to drones.

So why was Switzerland the country the FAA picked for their first agreement of this kind?

There are a few reasons.

First, Switzerland has been a global leader in integrating drones into the national airspace for several years now. The country has made significant strides toward implementing a country-wide UTM, rolling out a U-space mobile application in partnership with AirMap, which allows drone pilots to fly in controlled airspace in certain areas using an approach similar to the FAA’s LAANC for automatic airspace authorization.

Swiss U-space Deploys National Flight Information Management System for Drones (FIMS)

Switzerland has also hosted testing by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) for electronic license plates for drones, and the Swiss post is currently conducting regular drone deliveries after a brief halt due to a crash last year.

In addition to Switzerland’s leadership on drone regulations, the country is home to a large ecosystem of internationally-recognized drone companies, including Matternet, senseFly, Flyability, Sunflower Labs, Wingtra, and Pix4D.

Remote ID Conspicuously Absent from Areas of Focus

Although the primary goal of the FAA/FOCA collaboration is the safe integration of UAS into the national airspace, there is no explicit mention of Remote ID anywhere in the FAA’s press release or its Declaration of Intent with the Swiss FOCA.

Photo credit: Matternet

UTM, Control and Communication, and Detect and Avoid are all mentioned as areas of focus, and all of these overlap with—and hypothetically rely on— Remote ID.

So why was Remote ID left out?

It could be that the FAA didn’t feel it was necessary to include Remote ID, since it’s simply a technology meant to enable these broader areas of focus.

But it could also be that the FAA left any mention of Remote ID out because it’s hoping to avoid negative associations with this new collaboration—during its two-month comment period, the FAA’s Remote ID NPRM received over 50,000 comments, the vast majority of which were critical of the approach the FAA was proposing.

According to Politico, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson recently said that the FAA will release a final rule on Remote ID by the end of the year, which certainly seems ambitious. (Hat tip to Chris Korody of the Drone Business Center for calling this information to our attention.)

It could be that this new partnership with the FOCA will inform that rule. Given Switzerland’s progress toward a country-wide UTM and its hosting of electronic drone license plate testing, it would make sense if the FAA wanted to collaborate with the country in establishing its Remote ID rule.

But if this is the case, the FAA has intentionally left that detail out of its public statements about the collaboration.

What do you think of the collaboration between the U.S. and Switzerland—could it help fast-track permissions for BVLOS and other types of UAS operations currently prohibited by the Part 107 rules? Share your thoughts in this thread on the UAV Coach community forum.

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