FAA’s Elwell at the Uber Elevate Summit on Urban Air Mobility: “We Either Evolve or We Get Left Behind”

Urban Air Mobility – the idea that public transportation systems in cities all over the world will move up, rather than out, to include air transportation such as passenger drones – has been a hot topic for city planners and technology companies.
It hasn’t been met with equal enthusiasm by regulators everywhere, however, including the  FAA in the U.S.  But at the recent Uber Elevate Summit 2019, a conference dedicated to urban air mobility, FAA Acting Administrator Dan Elwell addressed the crowd.  While his speech was not a rousing endorsement of urban air mobility, his presence made it clear that the FAA is looking at the topic – and makes it seem more likely that passenger drones will be a future reality.
“New Entrants” to the NAS
In a speech reminiscent of some of previous FAA Administrator Michael Huerta’s addresses to the drone energy, Elwell began by welcoming Uber and urban air mobility players who have become significant names in the drone industry over a very short period of time.
“It is awesome to be here, soaking up the energy, creativity and innovation of a brand new form of transportation,” said Elwell.  “I find your vision for the future to be refreshing…invigorating even. And that’s not easy to say, coming from where I come from.””We at the FAA have historically been a bit reticent to welcome “new entrants” in the National Airspace System, but that is changing rapidly.…Gone are the days when we could ignore an entrant that was radically different. Nowadays, we either evolve or we get left behind.

We learned that the hard way when UAS technologies and an entirely new industry sprung up practically overnight and we weren’t ready for it.”

Elwell said that while the FAA was “sort of caught up now” on UAS technologies, the agency is trying not to get behind again.

“That’s why we’re out in front with urban air mobility, or UAM, working with the industry and with NASA to make sure we get it right.

Time is short — companies are already testing a variety of vehicles both in the U.S. and abroad, some with passengers.”

“Something New to Keep Me Awake at Night”

After pointing out that the rate of change in aviation has changed dramatically over the last 30 years, Elwell said that while UAM is fascinating technology, it presents new and serious regulatory challenges.

“Everyone is riveted by this. But then I put on my FAA regulator hat and now I’ve got something new to keep me awake at night,” said Elwell.  “You see the ideal way of transporting people across cities. I see car-sized vehicles with multiple rotors hanging over dense urban areas.”

“That’s the challenge – taking an industry of incredibly bright minds and fast-moving technology and joining that with a regulatory agency that wants innovation, but only if it can be safely brought into an urban environment.”

Crawl, Walk, Run

Elwell said that the FAA is evolving into “a more responsive regulator.”  Too speed the pace of regulations, he says that the agency has become data driven – and has transitions from prescriptive rulemaking to performance-based rules, which will “form the backbone for how UAM vehicles will be built.”

After pointing out progress towards small drone integration, Elwell said that the FAA will use a similar process for working towards UAM, and described the agency’s next steps: “NASA will again be our partner in this area with their UAM Grand Challenge planned for next year.

The Grand Challenge is about bringing the best and brightest minds from government and industry together to begin live testing of carefully designed scenarios to show how a variety of vehicles and airspace management systems will – or won’t – work together.”

“…That’s crawling. We’re not ready to walk or run yet,” said Elwell.

“Walking and running will require that these highly automated or autonomous vehicles and systems meet the FAA’s – and the public’s – safety expectations for aviation when they buy a ticket…and as we’ve discussed, those expectations are very high.”

“…To be part of the safest mode of transportation on the planet, your operation must become synonymous with safety,” said Elwell.

“That’s the only way to fully exploit the energy, creativity and innovation of this exciting new industry.”