New technologies can pose problems for regulators. If a technical capability or system wasn’t foreseen during the design of a rule, it can be tempting to over-complicate the existing regulatory framework in order to compensate for its arrival.
Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are one example of this. In its first UAS rulemaking, focused on “small” systems, the FAA faced the challenge of reconciling the ability of a remote operator on the ground to navigate a drone overhead with Part 91’s “see and avoid” requirements. The regulatory need to maintain “vigilance” when operating an aircraft doesn’t seem very technical, but this basic tenet of airmanship caused considerable distress. If the pilot isn’t inside the aircraft—a possibility not necessarily considered in Part 91—how can he/she meet the expectation of the rules?
In answering this question, unfortunately, the agency lost faith in the general applicability of Part 91’s basic standards. Rather than leaving open multiple avenues for operator “vigilance,” the FAA got explicit on the matter in §107.31(a), requiring the remote pilot, any observer and the person controlling the aircraft to see the UAS throughout the flight. Such proscriptive language has forced operators to seek specific approval for innovative, safe commercial uses.
With additive manufacturing entering the aviation market, we are on the cusp of another “see and avoid” moment: Will the agency—and industry—understand the broad applicability of existing production rules to 3D printing technologies?
Last May, my colleague Jason Dickstein, president of the Modification and Replacement Parts Association. explained: “This seems frightening—many people want to reinvent the regulatory wheel—but the FAA’s regulatory system is quite robust and can handle the challenges posed by this ‘new’ tool.”
Too many times, we’ve seen the FAA reinvent the wheel to compensate for market developments. Rather than losing faith in the face of “frightening” progress, the aviation community should instead rely on the fundamentals of existing aviation safety rules.
Brett Levanto is vice president of operations of Obadal, Filler, MacLeod & Klein. He is an advisor for the Aeronautical Repair Station Association.