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Key Takeaways from UAS Symposium 2016

BY Alan Perlman
28 April 2016

On April 19-20, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) hosted a UAS Symposium in conjunction with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

The purpose of the Symposium?

To be a forum for the UAS industry and stakeholder community to provide input and feedback directly to FAA decision-makers on topics related to UAS integration.

This Symposium boasted 567 participants and featured keynote speeches by FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and Deputy Administrator Mike Whitaker.

Topics covered included:

  • Engaging Industry
  • Airspace Management
  • Aircraft Certification
  • Pilot/Operator/Maintenance Certification
  • Airspace Authorities (Federal Preemption vs. State and Local Laws)
  • Research Challenges and Opportunities
  • Managing Public Perception
  • Airports Issues
  • Technological Enablers and Restrictors
uas symposium michael huerta

Michael Huerta, FAA Administrator

Huerta’s opening keynote was inspiring and set the tone for the event.

I would like today to mark the beginning of a new phase of the collaboration that has proved to be so successful. Toward this end, we have identified three high-level UAS strategic priorities.

Not surprisingly, the first is safely enabling UAS operations in the National Airspace System.

Second is adaptability. We want to create an environment in which emerging technology can be safely and rapidly introduced.

And third is global leadership. We’re looking to shape the global standards and practices for UAS through international collaboration.

These priorities form the backbone of a comprehensive strategic plan for UAS integration that we expect to release soon.

Now I’m going to touch on what I hope we’ll accomplish over the next two days. I want to outline what the FAA team is going to do and what I expect of you as key stakeholders.

Every FAA speaker at this symposium has three goals.

First: to explain. These are FAA decision makers in their respective areas. They’re here to tell you where the agency is heading and how we’re going to get there, what challenges we’re facing and where we need help.

Second: to listen. While we’re going to do some talking, we’re absolutely going to be listening too. We’re going to tell you the direction we’re leaning, but that doesn’t mean you have to agree.

In fact, we know most of you won’t agree with everything that’s said on this stage this afternoon. Disagreement can be a source of strength, and the key thing is for everyone to hear what the other is thinking.

Which leads to the third goal: We’re really here to engage. I expect a robust dialogue in every single one of tomorrow’s breakout sessions.

Overall, I’m glad I made the trip down to Daytona Beach for the symposium.

With so many rumors and different industry stakeholder positions regarding sUAS regulations, it was good to hear directly from the FAA as to where their head is at when it comes to UAS integration.

Below are a few notes I took from the individual sessions:

  • For the first time in the history of aviation, you have tens of thousands of guys able to purchase an aircraft and bring it up into the national airspace without any formal aviation training. Safety is a HUGE priority for everyone, not just at the FAA but with industry stakeholders who want to continue to see the industry blossom.
  • The FAA is framing its UAS work into five categories or sectors: Integrated, Public, Low-Altitude Commercial BVLOS, Low Altitude Commercial VLOS, Modelers/Hobbyists.
  • Part 107 will not give blanket authority to operate at night, to fly over people, or to fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). But, all these things will eventually be possible with the right operator certificate. The FAA is working on what that’ll ultimately look like. Just last week, they granted the first Section 333 Exemption to allow night-time flight operations.
  • Oversight / enforcement of regulations is a challenge. In large part, it’s not an aviation community, which makes it hard for the FAA to communicate with these folks. “We will need to partner with others,” I heard a lot.
  • In response to a comment, “flying an advanced multirotor hardly takes any skill,” one of the panelists disagreed entirely. When you’re flying a more automated aircraft, he said, all that’s happening is that your role changes from that of an active stick-and-rudder operator to a monitor of automation, which can arguably be a more taxing skill that requires more training.
  • With Part 107 on the way, there will be a new type of operator in the national airspace system. At the moment, this sUAS operator will only be tested on knowledge, but I think everyone in the room recognized a need for some kind of in-person practicum testing component. In aviation, the mentorship / CFI relationship is a strong training method, particularly when you’re trying to teach someone to develop a pilot mindset. This is harder to accomplish when you’re just testing someone in a multiple choice exam.
  • There was some obvious frustration with currently needing to hold a pilot license to serve as the pilot-in-command (PIC) under the auspices of a Section 333 Exemption. What I hear from the FAA and learned to respect is that one of the reasons they made this a bullet point is because needing to have that pilot license shows that there’s “buy-in” into the system. And that buy-in keeps us a little more safe while the FAA figures out how to properly regulate UAS integration. As per what’s been laid out in NPRM 107 and what is likely going to be published this summer, the pilot license requirement will no longer be required for the majority of sUAS operations.
  • The complexities of the Section 333 Exemption have inherently lead to a culture of non-compliance. One of the big stakeholder sentiments was that it’s hard to know who you have to talk to at the FAA if you have questions or want to voice concerns. It’s a lengthy process to fly, and with such a massive amount of 5-mile ring-around-the-airport airspace across the NAS and inconsistency with how airports and ATC handle requests to operate, the FAA recognizes that more work needs to be done here.


Overall, it was a great conference. The FAA is apparently working on their own write-up / full report which I’ll be sure to share when published.

I hope these notes were helpful to those of you who were not able to attend.

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