FAA UAS Integration Office Executive Director, Jay Merkle, Hosts Question and Answer Session During InterDrone Conference

As the drone industry grows, so has the need for conferences supporting industry insiders. Each year there are drone shows, expos, and conferences in major cities throughout the United States and the world. At these events, professionals, amateurs, or just people curious about drones have a chance to come together to learn about the future of the drone industry. This year drone shows have been faced with the challenge of organizing amid a global pandemic. Luckily, all of the scheduled 2020 drone shows were able to commence on their scheduled dates through virtual meetings.

While having the drone shows held over virtual forums meant that there was a smaller turnout in terms of nonprofessionals attending, for those committed to the industry it was very convenient. There was no need to travel, so it meant that more people could afford to sit in on the many sessions provided by all of the drone companies. The final drone show of the year, InterDrone, took place virtually on December 15-17, 2020. This year’s InterDrone show consisted of over 100 workshops, sessions, courses, and presentations. As stated on the show’s website, “With more than 110 pre-conference workshops, sessions, and panels, you can prepare for your Part 107 test, get hands-on training, or learn practical information for starting your drone service business, whether you’re flying a UAV for agriculture, real estate, insurance, aerial photography or construction.”

Some of the sessions for the 2020 InterDrone show include subjects of drones for agriculture, emergency response, surveying and mapping, safety parameters, and BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line Of Sight) integration. Keynote speakers included founders, CEOs, and department directors of companies like Kittyhawk, Amazon Prime Air, Parrot, DJI, NASA, and more. One of the biggest presentations was held by the Federal Aviation Administration UAS Integration Office Executive Director Jay Merkle. The mission of the FAA is to maintain the safety of all airspace in the US. Regulations established by the FAA governing manned aircraft has led to the United States having one of the safest and most efficient aerospace programs in the world. The FAA’s biggest task right now is finding ways to safely integrate drones into US airspace to meet the growing demands of the industry.

One of the first topics that Mr. Merkle addressed in his open to the public Q&A session was about the FAA’s plan to require remote IDs for drones. One of the biggest concerns with drones is how to keep track of and identify thousands of drones in shared airspace. If a drone is flying somewhere it doesn’t belong or erratically, police and officials need to be able to identify the drone and its pilot. Being able to remotely identify any drone in the air would provide officials with the same information as manned aircraft and ultimately lead to the safe integration of drones in the airspace. Mr. Merkle informed the virtual audience that the FAA has reached the final stages of approving and implementing a remote ID program, one that will be in effect by the new year.

The next big question the audience had for Mr. Merkle was about the progression of BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line Of Sight) capabilities. FAA regulations state that all drones must be operated within VLOS (Visual Line Of Sight) of its pilot. This ensures that a drone can be safely flown and avoid any obstacles. However, as the demand of how drones are to be used increases, the need to fly them BVLOS has also increased. Drones being used for inspections, mapping, emergencies, scientific research, or even deliveries are limited by the fact that they need to remain in line of sight.

Mr. Merkle agreed that the next logical step for the FAA to take would be to review BVLOS policy. He explained that since regulations about remote IDs, flight over people, and restricted airspace were firmly in place it was time to start focusing on the next level of drone technology. “The next large regulatory actions we’ll be taking in terms of UAS operations will be in enabling Beyond Visual Line Of Sight,” he said. “We think the next step will be largely around that public safety or commercial, industrial inspection, that’s where we have the most demand, and where we think we understand it the best.” He went on to discuss how the FAA is working with companies whose goal is to create drones that can safely fly BVLOS. This would mean drones with onboard computers that give them total situational awareness to sense and avoid obstacles in the air and the ground. Mr. Merkle said that the FAA’s biggest concern when it comes to BVLOS is the safety of people on the ground. He said, “if you are going to fly, you need an aircraft that is reliable and durable.”

Participants in Mr. Merkle’s Q&A session went on to ask about other drone topics like their future place in urban mobility. While several companies have come a long way in designing and certifying drone taxis, they are not entirely ready to take to the skies in the United States. Mr. Merkle pointed out that since a drone taxi is made to be a passenger vehicle, tremendous safety protocols need to be enacted. Still, he and the FAA recognize that urban mobility drones will be a part of the future.

One of the final questions he was asked was if he was concerned about how the political transition of office would impact the drone industry. Under the Trump administration, there has been some resistance to the progression of the drone industry. Some of this resistance has come from the administration’s fears over Chinese made drones being used to spy on American infrastructure. Mr. Merkle’s response reflects well on the views of the incoming administration. “I personally am optimistic that the societal and economic benefits of this sector would be appealing to anyone,” Mr. Merkle said. “We enjoy bipartisan support.” What was made clear throughout Mr. Merkle’s presentation, as well as the entire 2020 InterDrone show, is that drone policy and technology would be continuing to progress over the coming year to the betterment of the world.

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