UAS: What Does “Five Years” Mean?

One of the trickiest things in the practice of law is managing deadlines.  Courts and administrative agencies set strict timetables for virtually every action.  If the Court says you have 14 days to file a response, they generally mean it and most courts are not open to extensions.  Knowing that the deadline is 14 days, however, does not tell you the specific day your response has to be filed.  Do the 14 days run from the day the other party filed their brief with the court, the day they put it in the mail, or the day you got a copy of it?  Does your 14-day deadline count weekends and holidays?  If the 14th day is a day the court is closed, do you have to file your response the day before, or can you wait until the day after?  These things might seem like technicalities, but they have serious implications for lawyers and their client.

It is with these things in mind that we went back and looked at the FAA’s announced timeline for UAS integration.  The FAA has said repeatedly that it has a 5 year timetable for safe and effective UAS integration into the national airspace, and it is still committed to meeting that deadline.  Unanswered in all of this is, five years from when?

In 2012, Congress instructed the FAA to come up with a plan to integrate UASs into the national airspace in 5 years.  In September 2013, the FAA published a report entitled Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Comprehensive Plan:  A Report on the Nation’s UAS Path Forward.  In that report, the FAA committed itself to the creation of a detailed plan for a 5 year phased rollout of its rules.  Last month, the agency’s Inspector General issued a report criticizing the FAA’s slow action, and in response, the FAA stated:

AFS-80 is working with MITRE CAASD to develop a UAS Integration Strategy to assist with the development of a UAS Program Plan that identifies the goals, dependencies, issues, and specific milestones of a phased implementation approach for UASintegration into the NAS over a five year implementation period.

The FAA concluded that “the anticipated completion date for this plan is August 31, 2014.”

So, while the FAA has stated repeatedly that there will be phased integration over five years, it is still unclear when the five years started.  Did the clock start in 2012 or 2013?  Is it the FAA’s position that the clock does not start until the FAA releases its new plan in August 2014?

If you look back at the FAA’s UAS roadmap, it identified projects that would have to be done in the “short-term,” which it described as 1-5 years, the “mid-term,” which was 6-10 years, and the “long-term,” which was more than 10 years.  Based on this breakdown, it looks like what the FAA is actually doing is periodically creating new 5 year plans, which tick off tasks that are complete, and add new tasks that will be done over the next five years.  In hindsight, the key phrase used by the FAA probably has not been “5 year plan,” but the term “phased.”

As a result, there probably is not an actual “end date” for the FAA’s UAS project.  There will not be a day when the FAA will throw a switch, and the skies will be filled with drones.  Rather, the FAA will methodically and steadily add new UASs, new classes of users, and new capabilities over many years to come.  Let’s hope that “slow and steady” wins this race.

(Originally posted July 7, 2014)

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