Our national airspace is an artery for commerce, a key domain for national security and homeland defense, and, increasingly, a domain to define the next 50 years of aviation.
Due to rapid technological developments in areas such as artificial intelligence, autonomy advanced materials, and batteries, a panoply of startups as well as legacy companies are making significant investments in advanced aviation platforms such as uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS) and advanced air mobility (AAM).
Greater UAS integration will unlock benefits ranging from routine package delivery, critical infrastructure inspection, and faster emergency response, among many others. Similarly, the introduction of AAM creates a new mode of transportation for cargo and people that can help reduce traffic congestion, bolster supply chains, and increase accessibility for the traveling public.
America’s Global Leadership At Risk
The United States is not alone in developing advanced aviation platforms. Other jurisdictions, such as the European Union and China, are also making significant leaps in developing these technologies and integrating them into their respective airspaces.
Unfortunately, American innovators face significant barriers to unlocking the substantial benefits of advanced aviation platforms, which places American global leadership at risk. Ceding the market to other jurisdictions, will allow them to have a greater say in writing the rules of the road for these technologies. The companies that are the first movers will be able to lock in market share, though they may or may not be aligned to U.S. national interests. The continued dominance of Chinese drone giant DJI in the consumer and enterprise small UAS market is indicative of this phenomenon, through its 54 percent market share and its significant influence in the U.S. as well as international bodies.
The policy environment to enable technological innovation is rarely confined to a single issue or federal agency. Rather, it is complex, overlapping, and multi-faceted. Consequently, a lack of a cohesive national approach to advance innovation can inhibit the U.S. from effectively crafting appropriate public policies to unlock novel technologies. Advanced aviation platforms are no different, particularly considering that aviation is appropriately a highly regulated area of law.
Policy challenges for advanced aviation encompass a multitude of issues, including workforce, safety, security, economic, and privacy considerations implicating an alphabet soup of federal agencies, such as the Departments of Transportation, Defense, Education, Labor, Commerce, Energy, Homeland Security, and Justice, as well as non-cabinet agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission.
The Case for a National Strategy
That is why the Biden administration, led by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), should develop a national strategy for advanced aviation platforms, which would pull all of those elements and agencies together and provide a policy roadmap for both legislative and executive branch policymakers. A national strategy is not just an end in and of itself, but is a policy and political mechanism to push federal agencies to prioritize the topic of the national strategy and consequently drive policy changes.
The U.S. has pursued a national strategy approach in a number of technology contexts, including autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, secure 5G, and quantum computing. In general, these strategies have outlined the various challenges posed by each respective technology, the competitive landscape, existing initiatives and programs, the roles of relevant federal agencies, and key enabling policies. Moreover, some of these strategies are revised and refined over time — the various iterations of national strategies for autonomous vehicles are a notable example.
What would a national strategy for advanced aviation platforms look like?
First, as a threshold issue, one key consideration is how a national strategy should address the different types of advanced aviation platforms, such as small drones, larger drones ( those weighing over 55 pounds), and advanced air mobility systems with or without a pilot. While many of the policy challenges and solutions overlap, there will be significant differences, a factor that a national strategy should account for. A similar challenge exists with automated vehicles, given the existence of automation technologies in passenger cars, trucks, industrial equipment, and other delivery vehicles, such as Nuro’s R2. Consequently, OSTP may want to consider dividing an advanced aviation national strategy for aviation into chapters to effectively capture the nuances and differences between different types of platforms.
In terms of content, any national strategy would want to include elements about workforce, regulatory issues primarily focused on aviation safety, research and development priorities, national and homeland security concerns, and other needs as appropriate. Importantly, OSTP’s development of the national strategy would be intergovernmental in nature and allow for external stakeholders in industry, civil society, state and local government, labor, and others to inform it. Public-private collaboration is crucial given the complex set of challenges and opportunities presented by advanced aviation platforms.
Strategy Alone Isn’t Enough
Finally, as important as a national strategy is, follow-through is a necessity. OSTP should be responsible for facilitating the strategy’s implementation through enabling interagency dialogues and development of specific milestones to measure progress. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the private sector stand ready to collaborate with OSTP and the administration to develop and implement this national strategy.
The U.S. has a long history of leading the world in aviation technology, and now presents a prime opportunity to cement that leadership in advanced aviation platforms for the next 50 years.
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