Science Panel Says FAA is Overly Tough on Drones

By DAVID KOENIG | June 13, 2018

Science advisers to the federal government say safety regulators should do more to speed the integration of commercial drones into the nation’s airspace.

The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine said in a report Monday that federal safety regulators are often “overly conservative” and need to balance the overall benefits of drones instead of focusing only on their risk to airplanes and helicopters.

Academy experts say the Federal Aviation Administration tilts against proposals for commercial uses of unmanned aircraft without considering their potential to reduce other risks and save lives.

For example, they say, when drones are used to inspect cell-phone towers it reduces the risk of making workers climb up the towers.

The study was requested by Congress last year.

In a statement, an FAA spokesman said the agency was working to safely speed the integration of drones into the airspace. The science board’s recommendations match the FAA’s efforts “and we see them as an endorsement of our efforts and encouragement to accelerate our efforts,” he said.

The academies leaned on a 14-member committee whose members come mostly from universities and research groups but also the aerospace industry, including a representative of Boeing’s drone business.

The high-level science board accused the FAA of making “overly conservative risk assessments” that have slowed beneficial commercial uses of drones.

“In many cases, the focus has been on ‘What might go wrong?’ instead of a holistic risk picture’ that considers overall risk and benefit, the advisers wrote.

Instead, the advisers recommended, the FAA should meet requests for drone operations approvals by saying, “How can we approve this?”

The board was critical of FAA culture even while acknowledging that the FAA’s approach has helped make manned aviation safer.

“The committee concluded that `fear of making a mistake’ drives a risk culture at the FAA that is too often overly conservative, particularly with regard to (drone) technologies, which do not pose a direct threat to human life in the same way as technologies used in manned aircraft,” the board experts wrote.

They said the FAA is sometimes “excessively risk averse,” and staffers may believe they could endanger their careers by allowing any new risk.

The board said its committee recommended that the FAA be guided by asking whether it can make drone use as safe as other background risks in everyday life.

“We do not ground airplanes because birds fly in the airspace, although we know birds can and do bring down aircraft,” they wrote.

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