WASHINGTON – The head of the Aerospace Industries Association is calling on the Trump administration and Congress to increase funding for both NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration, particularly with a surge in commercial drone activity expected in coming years.
Eric Fanning, who took over as head of the aviation trade group at the start of the year, told Federal Times that both agencies have struggled in the wake of budget sequestration — and that it is time to reverse that trend.
“NASA got a nice bump this year, which is good. They are certainly an agency that has been asked to do a lot more over the years than they’ve been given money for and have just stretched everything out,” Fanning, a former secretary of the U.S. Army and acting secretary of the U.S. Air Force, said.
“We are advocating for them to get increased budgets for the foreseeable future to try and catch up to all that is that they’re being asked to do.”
The Trump administration has been vocal about a desire to invest in both commercial and military space, including the launch of a new Space Council headed by Vice President Mike Pence. For fiscal year 2019, the administration requested $19.9 billion for NASA, an increase over the FY18 request of $19.1 billion, which had been a drop from the previous year.
But the FAA, with oversight over all air traffic in the United States, has not received the same level of attention — something Fanning believes needs to change given expected growth.
“The FAA is one of the unsung heroes, a critical agency. We have the safest civilian airspace anywhere in the world. [We’d] like to maintain that record as they’re trying to upgrade very outdated technology,” Fanning said. The administration had a budget request of $16.1 billion in FY19, down from its FY17 enacted budget of $16.4 billion.
Specifically, Fanning is concerned about the proliferation of drone systems for commercial applications, which are expected to grow as a major focus for the shipping and retail industries, something he called “the wave of the future.”
But not funding the FAA now could have two impacts. Firstly, it creates a safety risk, with the airspace suddenly being loaded with both small drones and large cargo drones flying at 60,000 feet in the air — all of which could overload an already taxed aviation monitoring system.
Secondly, it threatens the ability for the nascent industry to reach its full potential, something Mike Blades, an analyst with Frost and Sullivan who studies the commercial drone industry, agrees is a potential challenge.
“I think if the FAA doesn’t start getting ahead of the technology, they will stifle the market growth. If it becomes too hard to get around all these unneeded restrictions, the market can only grow so much,” Blades said.
“I think the FAA is well aware of what needs to be done. They’re just undermanned and underfunded.”
What that market growth may be is murky. The most recent set of estimates from the FAA shows the commercial drone market topping 193,000 systems by 2021, but Blades believes that number should be significantly higher, at around 410,000 systems in 2021, partly due to the way the agency handles its accounting.
“To me, the real market bump, and I think it will be a steady growth, is going to come from drones being operated remotely. You’re in an office, the drone takes off on its own and it’s all autonomous,” Blades said.
“But you’re not going to have any widespread adoption of remotely operated commercial drones without a framework for beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations and a robust unmanned traffic management system.”
For his part, Fanning agrees some form of regulation from the FAA is needed to make the market growth happen.
“We’re not anti-regulation. We need regulation in this industry, you couldn’t have civilian aviation without regulation,” Fanning said. “But we need the right regulation, smart regulation, and we need to make sure we’re ready for the future because technology is innovating and fielding faster and faster all the time and the regulatory system is struggling to keep up with that.
“So there is definitely a need for it. There’s definitely a market for it. We just have to make sure we’re ready to figure out how you incorporate all of those additional items into the airspace.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.