Science panel says the FAA is too tough on drones

David Koenig
Associated Press

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.

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 recommended the FAA be guided by asking whether it can make drone use as safe as other background risks in everyday life.