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UBER Elevate Symposium


Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
UBER Elevate Symposium
Arlington, VA
Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Thank you, Eric [Allison - head of Aviation programs at Uber] for that introduction.

This summit focuses on an exciting aviation concept: On-demand vertical take-off and landing aero-taxis.  Urban Air Mobility is joining autonomous vehicles, drones, and reusable rockets, in a wave of transportation innovation that may change the way we live, work, and travel.  And the Department is already playing an important role in enabling this change.

The rate of change is impressive.  Already, more than 1,400 autonomous vehicles are being tested in the U.S. by more than 80 companies.  These tests are taking place in 36 states plus Washington, D.C.

These initiatives come as the use of drones continues to grow.  As of the end of May 2019, there are more than 1.39 million registered drones in the U.S. – of which more than 372,000 are registered for commercial use.  And there are more than 136,000 certified drone pilots – nearly triple the number in 2017.

And commercial space is really taking off with reusable rockets and air launch systems. For the first time in 14 years, America has regained global first place in commercial space launches.  The U.S. went from 23 commercial launches in 2017, to 33 in 2018.

As many as 44 commercial launches are anticipated this year, and as many as 56 commercial launches are expected annually by 2021. 

Aero-Taxis are part of this transformational innovation. 

Of course, there are many questions about these systems.   What type of propulsion systems will be used?  Where, how far, and how fast will they fly? Will they be manned, remotely flown or self-piloted?  What kind of flight navigation and guidance technology will be onboard?

This leads to questions about governance, and how to ensure aero-taxis can safely operate in our crowded airspace.  Since they might not fit perfectly into traditional travel categories, how should they be regulated?

As manned helicopters or as drones?  As personal, or commercial vehicles?  And, a key question is: which government agency or agencies will monitor and regulate aero-taxis?  

As we address these important questions, we are guided by three top priorities:

First, safety is the number one priority. It is the foundation of everything the Department does. 

The second priority is rebuilding and refurbishing our country’s infrastructure to grow the economy, increase competitiveness, and improve quality of life for everyone. 
The third priority is preparing for the future by engaging with new, emerging technologies and addressing legitimate public concerns about safety, security, and privacy without hampering innovation.

The Department’s regulatory strategy avoids overly prescriptive rules in favor of a performance-based approach. It is tech-neutral, not command and control.  We are not in the business of picking winners and losers.  That decision is left to the public.

So, it’s important for developers to engage the public early and often to address legitimate concerns about safety, security, privacy and noise. 

To help answer questions like these, on March 12, 2019, the Department announced the formation of the Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technologies Council, or NETT Council.

This council will coordinate internal review of new technologies that have implications across multiple DOT agencies.

The NETT Council is empowered to establish working groups for each new cross-modal project.

Internally, it will address and resolve matters of jurisdiction and policy.  Externally, it will ensure that project sponsors have a single point of access to discuss plans and proposals.  Going forward, there will be one place – a one-stop shop – for innovators and stakeholders to work with USDOT to address new technologies that touch multiple transportation systems.

The operations of aero-taxis themselves clearly fall under the oversight of the FAA. Operators must work with the FAA to get permission to conduct flights delivering packages or people by drones.

But, getting the economic authority to charge customers for these services comes from a different organization: the Office of Aviation and International Affairs, which is part of the Office of the Secretary of Transportation.

This came as a surprise to many drone operators and UAS manufacturers when they first began exploring drone deliveries.  On April 30, 2018, the Department issued a notice to advise UAS operators that they may need to register with OST if they want to deliver packages for compensation.

To stay ahead of this issue, the Department continues to actively engage in discussions with UAS operators to better understand their operations and provide options for the different types of economic licensing currently available.

These discussions often prove helpful in the Department’s ongoing effort to become more responsive to stakeholders.
There are other drone-related activities in the Department that may interest you, as well.

The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program -- or IPP -- was launched in 2017.  The Department selected projects from around the country to test the safe operation of drones in a variety of conditions currently only permitted by waiver or exception.

These include over people, at night, and beyond the visual line-of-sight.  The IPP enables live operations, including package delivery by drone, and future regulatory efforts will be shaped by concrete data gathered from actual flight experience.

And that’s just the beginning. Data gathered from drone package deliveries may prove useful in the development of vehicles, systems, procedures and infrastructure for safely picking up and delivering people.

Additionally, in January 2019 the Department awarded contracts to service providers for the development of an air traffic management system for drones.  It will supply flight planning, communications, separation and weather services for drones which will operate under 400 feet.

This system is separate from, but complementary to, the traditional FAA air traffic management system.  It will help create a shared information network and a framework for maintaining air safety.  This should benefit Urban Air Mobility systems, since they will operate within this airspace.

In addition, two recent announcements of proposed rules will also impact aero-taxi development.

The proposed rule for Operation of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems over People will allow routine drone flights over people and at night under certain conditions, without obtaining a waiver or exemption.

However, this will only be allowed if the operator has received appropriate safety training, completed approved testing, and the drone is equipped with anti-collision lighting and meets other physical and technical criteria.

Since aero-taxis will likely operate at night and over people, the FAA will need to determine which existing regulations might apply and what new regulations may be needed to fill in gaps.

Another initiative of note is the advanced notice of proposed rulemaking for the Safe and Secure Operations of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems.  This focuses on the security issues that drones, in the hands of bad actors, could pose and how to ameliorate them.  

But perhaps the most critical next step is tackling the issue of remote identification.  Think of remote identification as an electronic license plate.  Knowing who’s out there and where they are going will be critical not just in terms of safety and security, but also in terms of public acceptance.

The Department is moving forward on this critical effort.  You can expect a proposed rule on remote identification later this year: it’s a complicated issue and it’s important to get it right.  Remote identification is essential to enabling routine drone and aero-taxi operations.

Many of the lessons learned from integrating drones into the national airspace will also be applicable to Urban Air Mobility.  The FAA has a lot of experience with traditional aircraft designs and operating concepts.

And over the last two years, the FAA has been amassing an increasing amount of operational experience with unmanned entrants into the airspace.  And it has used that experience to help enable different kinds of drone operations – even those once considered quite experimental. 

So, as you can see, the Department has a very strong innovation agenda. But as you know so well, public acceptance is a critical element in determining if any of these new technologies are actually deployed.

Let me once again challenge developers to step up and help educate the public about the benefits of these new technologies.  Without public acceptance, these technologies will never realize their full potential. 

So, thank you for being here today, and have a great conference!


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Updated: Tuesday, June 11, 2019
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