Industries in Depth

Why we need to go back to the drawing board when it comes to regulating drones

An aerosol drone flies during a training at LTFY drone training school on the outskirts of Beijing, China August 2, 2017. Picture taken August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Lee

Small drones are expected to add to future air traffic, some of them being pilot-less. Image: REUTERS/Jason Lee

Harrison Wolf
Senior Project Manager, Flight Safety Foundation
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Drones

Google and Amazon are one year out from becoming the largest aircraft manufacturers in the world – disrupting one of the most stable duopolies in existence. At the moment, two companies make up 76% of the market share of passenger aircraft. New entrances, like Larry Page’s autonomous flying taxi company Kitty Hawk, promises to change the way people move around their cities.

With the FAA predicting between 2.75 Million and 4.47 Million small drones flying in the United States by 2021, the sheer density of traffic will prove unmanageable without a revolutionary new approach; one that won’t exist without an overhaul in how certification of systems works today.

Removing an on-board pilot changes more than aerodynamics, it changes the very concept of safety for the aircraft. Legacy aviation legislation and regulation had been written to protect those on the ground by protecting those in the sky. With drones, it may be tolerable to have failures so long as they are considerate of population density, airspace environments, and include protective systems that are reliable. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), overseeing the certification of these aircraft admits, “Existing airworthiness standards have developed from years of operational safety experience with manned aircraft and [thus] may be too restrictive for UAS in some areas and inadequate in others.” The classic approach does not fit – it is too rigid, and too slow to keep up with the demands of unmanned aviation.

Now, what we are seeing is a novel approach to aircraft certification for small drones beginning to take hold. Given the diversity of use cases for drone technologies, a standardized benchmarking approach should be created for certification. In other words, drone designs that meet certain high standards would be granted the most access to airspace, while those that cannot meet that standard can only operate where failure is more tolerable (ie, over the ocean, a field, etc).

Regulators are forced to try to fit the current understanding of analog, direct input control into a new paradigm of digital, automated and distributed control. Compounding the problem, those multi-lateral certification agreements that ensured international commerce and safety for so long, now hinder innovative nations from implementing new governance structures. We’re seeing this problem manifest itself throughout all fourth industrial technologies – from IoT where connection reliability leans heavily on certification protocols to blockchain where the very concept promises new certification and authorization processes, majorly disrupting financial industries, digital identification and more. For aviation, the way we maneuver the aircraft – software, hardware, and the spectrum for connection – become major weak points. For success in the unmanned aircraft world to be realized, the future of certification must incorporate a re-imagining of the processes by which governments engage manufacturers, software developers, end-users, academia, and the military.

Have you read?

These new certifications will pair well with the leading thought in operational safety for unmanned systems proposed under EASA’s prototype regulation and codified in Rwanda’s industry leading regulation.

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