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ARC Dispute May Mean Further Delay in Needed Drone Regulation

The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Identification and Tracking Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC), chartered earlier this year, was unable to reach a consensus on key issues. Given that Michael Huerta, Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), described the committee’s work as fundamental for allowing operations over people and operations beyond the visual line-of-sight (BVLOS), the committee’s inability to reach a consensus could mean further delay in the necessary regulation that would allow for these operations.

What Is the ARC and What Was It Supposed to Do?

As rules and regulations stand currently, the interim rule entitled “Registration and Marking for Small Unmanned Aircraft” does not include provisions for identifying small aircraft during operations. The FAA recognized that having a remote identification process could provide value in terms of public safety and the safety of the National Airspace System (NAS), so it chartered the ARC on May 4, 2017. The ARC was designed to inform the FAA on the available technologies for remote identification and tracking, shortfalls in available standards, and to make recommendations for how remote identification may be implemented. As of June, the committee had more than 70 members representing a variety of interested stakeholders including representatives from the UAS industry, UAS manufacturers, local law enforcement, and more.

According to its charter, the ARC’s objectives were to identify and recommend available and emerging technology for remote identification and tracking of UAS, identify requirements for meeting security and public safety needs, and to evaluate the feasibility and affordability of the available technical solutions including assessing how well those technologies fit the needs of law enforcement and air traffic control communities. The idea was that the ARC would discuss and develop a consensus that it would submit a recommendation report to the FAA, due by September 30, 2017. The FAA would use the report to craft regulations potentially allowing BVLOS operations and operations over people.

How the Dispute Impacts the UAS Industry

According to recent reports, the ARC agreed that the FAA could monitor the trajectories of drones using one of two methods: by piggybacking on the radio signals that control drone maneuvers, or by using a system relying on cellphone signals. The committee was unable, however, to reach agreement regarding which kinds of drones should be monitored by the FAA.

The panel was split roughly three ways on this issue. One faction favored calling for practically all drones to be subject to tracking requirements, while another faction wanted to see model airplanes operated by hobbyists excluded from future tracking requirements. The third faction favored applying remote identification requirements primarily to larger models optimized for longer flights, autonomous operations, or advanced imaging, excluding smaller models altogether. The final report, submitted to the FAA last week, was endorsed by only one-half of the full group with the rest either dissenting or describing their disagreements with the report’s findings.

This is a problem because the FAA relies on committees like the ARC to generate a consensus to inform future rulemaking. Just last month, Michael Huerta underscored the importance of the ARC’s work. During his opening remarks at the InterDrone Conference in Las Vegas, Huerta stated that one of the main building blocks for safely enabling BVLOS operations and operations over people is establishing a protocol for remote identification and tracking. He also added that the ARC’s findings would be central in determining how to move forward with developing that protocol, adding that he “couldn’t stress how important this work is.” The ARC’s inability to produce the consensus that the FAA anticipated will likely slow the development of regulations establishing the remote identification and tracking protocol needed to permit BVLOS operations and operations over people.

Moving forward, the FAA has several options. It could reconvene the ARC and direct it to keep working until a consensus is reached, or it could attempt to enact regulations based on the fractured recommendation. If the FAA were to try the latter, it risks creating regulation that is not palatable to UAS industry stakeholders, law enforcement, or perhaps both. The FAA released a written statement on Monday that it will review the ARC’s report carefully, but a spokesman reportedly declined to elaborate. Regardless of the route the FAA chooses to take, a speedy turnaround on the remote identification and tracking of small UAS is unlikely. Unfortunately, this means the UAS regulatory framework will continue to lag behind the pace of technological innovation. The industry is growing rapidly with Goldman Sachs forecasting a $30 billion market opportunity for commercial and consumer drones between and 2020. If users are to capitalize on that opportunity, the FAA is will need to get serious about playing catch up.