Interview: Michael Huerta

Photo by Dan Gettinger

Over the course of nearly eight years at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, serving first as Deputy Administrator before moving on to become Acting Administrator in 2011 and Administrator in 2013, Michael Huerta oversaw a crucial period in the integration of small drones into U.S. skies. For Huerta, who likes to call himself the “accidental administrator,” his was an unanticipated and immensely complex role that involved a variety of overlapping initiatives. These included the development of the Section 333 Exemption Program, which granted non-recreational drone operators temporary licenses to work while the FAA prepared comprehensive permanent drone regulations, which it did, in the form a set of rules known as Part 107,  followed by the establishment of a national registry of drone users that now includes over a million registrations, as well as the formulation of policies to accommodate local municipalities hoping to regulate drones in their skies. This was in addition to managing a range of often very vocal competing interests from industry groups, model aeronautics associations, security agencies, and privacy advocates, all while trying to ensure that nobody accidentally flew a drone into a commercial airliner or a packed football stadium. (If Huerta took a lengthy vacation after departing the FAA in January 2018, it wouldn’t come as a surprise.) His perspectives on the ins and outs of drone integration are therefore unique, and they offer valuable insights into the future of the issue both in the U.S. and abroad.

In July 2018, once he had had a little time to recover, Huerta spoke to the Center for the Study of the Drone in his first in-depth interview about drones since leaving the FAA. The discussion has been lightly edited for clarity.

Interview by Arthur Holland Michel


Center for the Study of the Drone First, how about a little background on your work?

Michael Huerta I once characterized myself as the Accidental Administrator. I showed up at the FAA never expecting to be the administrator. I put unmanned systems in that category. It’s something that has crept up on us collectively, both as a country as well as an aerospace industry, and I think it did so much more quickly than the skeptics would have thought. Just like all technological innovations, we didn’t, a few years ago, have a complete appreciation of what that potential was going to look like. I think we still don’t, and I don’t think we ever will. So you’re always in this tension of trying to figure out: how do you enable new technology? Keep the systems safe? But also keep all your options open, so that you’re not, just by virtue of an action you’re taking, completely precluding something from happening that might have a positive impact on society.

Drone Do you remember your first encounter with drone technology, or the first time you realized that it was something that you had to take seriously?

Huerta It was right at the very beginning. I was originally nominated to be deputy administrator of the FAA at the end of 2009, and Senator Cornyn of Texas put a hold on my nomination. The specific thing that he was concerned about was that the Department of Homeland Security wanted to be able to use unmanned aircraft for controlling the border region—patrols, surveillance, and all of that—and the FAA at the time was insistent on the use of a chase plane to ensure a level of safety, which would undo the whole benefit of the technology. And so a hold was put on my nomination while the agency addressed that.

“The traditional role of a regulator would be to adopt the Solomonic view and try to split the baby…Instead, we figured that the whole industry could benefit from having a series of structured conversations about how we might move forward together.”

It was something that you could see out there on the horizon. Of course, in that case we were talking about something very different than what we’re talking about with the consumer drones. We were talking about military drones that might be applied in the civilian context, but it all fit into this space of national safety and security. It was shortly after that, even before I became administrator, that it became apparent that there was a lot happening in the drone space and that we were being accused of holding this up. That we were operating at this glacial pace and not enabling innovation, and so on. And so when I became acting administrator, at the end of 2011, and was then confirmed as administrator in 2013, one of the things that I adopted very early on was an acceptance of a simple fact: “there’s no way we’re going to figure this out ourselves.” What we were going to have to do was figure out ways in which we could engage the industry, taking a page from the book of what we had done the last 20 years in regulating the safety of what we now call traditional aviation.

There were two objectives in mind. One was, for us at the FAA, to learn from the industry, to hear what they would like to see happen. And second, and, I would argue, equally importantly, we wanted the different segments of the industry to hear from each other. Otherwise, the agency would find itself in the position of hearing wildly different things from different segments of the industry, knowing that we couldn’t possibly satisfy everyone.

The traditional role of a regulator would be to adopt the Solomonic view and try to split the baby.  But we felt that part of the problem was that the different stakeholders weren’t really appreciating the other equities that other participants would have. Instead, we figured that the whole industry could benefit from having a series of structured conversations about how we might move forward together. And that’s ultimately what we did. This approach was eventually institutionalized as the Drone Advisory Committee. And I think that approach has served the agency very well.

Drone How much of your time as administrator was taken up by drone-related work?

Huerta   When I first joined the agency, the senior leadership was not spending a lot of time on unmanned aircraft. However, the time we spent on the issue grew every year along with the growth of the industry. By the time I left in January, it took up a very significant proportion of my time.

“Who wants a beta drone flying around in the national airspace system?”

Drone For us, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 represented the starter pistol for the race to begin seriously integrating drones in the national airspace. Was that the sense from your end? And did it feel like a daunting task when Congress gave you that challenge?

Huerta Yes and no. It wasn’t the first time Congress had focused on it, and there had already been within the agency a number of efforts to address questions of how we are going to certify these unmanned aircraft, as well as the question of what, exactly, we were going to regulate. Fundamentally, aerospace regulation is premised upon the notion that you certify the operator, the operation, and the aircraft. And the question was, how were we going to apply this structure to what was essentially a whole new approach to flying? What Congress provided was a series of deadlines to do this. I think everyone across the industry and the agency felt like they were impossible deadlines. I think you would even find Congressional staffers who would agree with that. But what it did do was focus everyone’s attention on a number of activities that ultimately culminated in Part 107, the Small UAS Rule, as an important first step.

Drone Tell me about the process of executing Part 107.

Huerta What I think was really interesting, as we were working through Part 107, was the whole narrative that the agency was going to find a way to mess it up and make it really difficult for the industry—that we were headed for this huge fight. But then with the registry initiative, and later when we introduced Part 107 for public comment, we saw the narrative turn. There was a news story that ran when Part 107 was inadvertently posted in advance of the actual announcement that said something to the effect of: “unbelievably, the agency might actually get this right.”

Drone I think everybody agrees that there was a lot of animosity between the FAA and the industry in those day. Where do you feel that tension was coming from?

Huerta In all of aviation—not just the FAA, but also among the airlines and the manufacturers—there is a very significant level of cautiousness. That cautiousness is deeply ingrained in aviation and aerospace. Talk to any CEO of any airline and they will tell you, “we don’t compete on safety. This is such a foundational view: that we share information, that we work together, because the whole industry thrives when we have a safe system. And that comes from the school of hard knocks; you remember in the early 1990s, it wasn’t that way.

But the flip side of it is that safety culture is incredibly wary. Because no one wants to be the one to mess that up. No one wants to make the decision or the recommendation that might result in some jeopardization of aviation’s incredible safety record.

The other side is what we might call the Silicon Valley culture. Here’s an example I like to use. When you buy a new iPhone and turn it on for the first time, what is the very first thing it does? It downloads a bunch of patches. In a sense, if you take that to an extreme, we’re all beta testers. For consumer electronics, your expectation is that it’s not going to work perfectly from the start. You know that there are going to be improvements that come over time, and we’re all okay with that. The idea is that you get things to market really fast and then you improve them and make them better.

Now when you put those two worlds together, what happens? Who wants a beta drone flying around in the national airspace system? And when you ask the question that way, people stop and think about it—that’s a really good question. Is either view right or wrong? I don’t think so.  It’s really that we have to respect where everyone is coming from and understand those cultures and honor them.

But it doesn’t mean we all must agree. It means that we have to find a way to work across industry cultures so that we can achieve what everyone wants: a vibrant aviation and aerospace system that is safe, dynamic, and technologically advanced. When you talk about it in that way, people are willing to give that a try.

“Create an environment, whether it’s through cooperative decision-making or government mechanisms, to bring stakeholders together to hash these things out with you.”

Drone In a sense, the stakeholders have more in common than they might have thought.

Huerta Yes, they have more in common than they might originally think. But it’s also clear that neither side is going to go away.

Drone I remember reading an FAA forecast from 2011 that predicted that there might be something like 30,000 commercial drones in the U.S. airspace system by 2020. And I remember being absolutely blown away by that number. I couldn’t even fathom how it would be possible to make that work. But reality, today there are already more than 100,000 commercial drone pilots in operation. Did the growth take you by surprise?

Huerta I realized that we had to get comfortable with being constantly surprised. Anything that anyone was predicting about this industry is going to be wrong in one way or another. I think this is still the case to a certain extent today. Mike Whitaker, our former deputy administrator, used to put it this way: “You have the really big players, like the Boeings and Airbuses, you have the Googles, and then you have chaos.” You don’t really know which of those are really going to take off, and the companies themselves don’t either. I think the more important thing is to think about how we’re moving directionally.

Drone What was a highlight of your tenure at the FAA with respect to your work on drones?

Huerta In 2014, we were looking at forecasts of a million drones being sold at Christmas. One of the things that we were extremely concerned about was that we would have to find a way to at least keep track of what was going on. That’s where the idea of the registry was born. But it was already summertime and Christmas wasn’t that far off. Commencing what amounts to a rule-making process, and getting it done, and then implementing it, in a period of less than six months—that’s a pretty daunting task. But we put together a working group and the industry, to its credit, stepped up. Everyone rolled up their sleeves, and we actually got it done.

“Drone Was it unprecedented within the FAA, to roll something of that magnitude out through a whole rule-making process as quickly as you did?

Huerta I believe so.”

There were a lot of nuts and bolts. First of all, how do you size a system like that? How many people are actually going to use it? There was a lot of trepidation around the White House because this was soon after the disastrous roll-out of, and no one wanted a replay of a highly visible system that was going to fail and crash on the first day…

Drone No pun intended.

Huerta Laughs. Right. In the leadership ranks of the FAA we were convening twice a week to review our progress. We threw all kinds of resources at this, but the industry stepped up as well and were supportive of what we were trying to do. They came up with some incredibly creative solutions. In the days running up to Christmas, the registry had gone live and there was a lot of speculation as to how much stress would be placed on the system. One of our senior technology executives was with his family at midnight mass looking at his phone tracking the performance of the registry. Just to see what the numbers were looking like. This was a real important milestone because it gave us, for the first time, a centralized place where we could start to get a sense of what the uptick was, and how we could use that as the basis and the framework for moving forward. That was really foundational for developing how we approach rulemaking. It got our team comfortable with the notion that the perfect can be the enemy of the good. I remember when we were doing the rule-making aspect of that, a lawyer asked me, “how does it look to you?” And I said, “well, frankly, it looks a little bit chaotic.” But I quickly followed that with, “But that’s okay, because that’s what we’re dealing with now.” And so in a sense, it was giving the team permission to look for the 80 percent solution as opposed to looking for perfection.

Drone Was it unprecedented within the FAA, to roll something of that magnitude out through a whole rule-making process as quickly as you did?

Huerta I believe so. And not only did we have to do the regulatory side of it, we also had to build the system itself. I think it was unprecedented.

Drone Was there one moment that stands out to you as being particularly challenging?

Huerta I had really hoped to have operations over people in place before I left the agency in January of 2018. But we ran into a buzz-saw in the interagency process from the national security agencies. This was just a genuine philosophical difference. At the time, the Department of Justice, led primarily by the leadership of the FBI, adopted the view that until there was proven and reliable counter unmanned aircraft technology it would not support any further enabling rules to allow certain activities to take place in the national airspace system. I got personally involved in this. In talking to the FBI leadership, I made the point that they were misunderstanding the rule-making process. It would be at least 18 months to two years before a rule is final. I also made the point that the rulemaking would result in a clear definition of what is legal; if we can define what is legal, then it makes clear what is not legal. This would address the major concern of law enforcement, which is how should they react to drones in the sky. Their response seemed to suggest that they were more comfortable with a blanket prohibition on operations over people at least until counter unmanned aircraft technology was available.   

My response to that was, “Well, that’s nice as an academic matter, but it doesn’t reflect reality.” The fact is drones do exist and they are becoming more common at exponential rates. What we need to do is bring the industry into what we’ve had in traditional aviation forever, which is a voluntary compliance regime. But, if you’re not telling them what to comply with, then that is going to fuel what you fear more than anything, which is the free-for-all.

Drone Is that conversation ongoing?

Huerta I’m hearing now that it’s starting to move forward. Before I left, we convened a law enforcement summit with all the tech companies and all the senior leadership from the law enforcement agencies. The law enforcement leadership produced a list of conditions that needed to be met. The drone and tech companies came back and said, “Well, we’re not hearing anything that’s impossible. Those are all things that we can address.” And the industry expressed a willingness to do just that. So progress is still being made. I just wish it would have happened more quickly.

Separately, the agency has also really moved forward on an electronic identification standard rule-making process. It’s taken a long time, but I think we’re finally getting everyone on-board.

Drone If you look at some of the countries that are behind the U.S. on the integration curve, is there a particular lesson learned from your experience that you think would serve them well as they go through this same process?

Huerta I guess it would be two things. One is, “Don’t assume you know what any answer is.” Because you’re going to be wrong. There could be a solution that someone may bring up, it might be a nineteen year-old, that can help you address some of the big challenges that you’re dealing with. And so, you have to recognize that what you need to be focused on is formulating clarity around what, exactly, is the problem you’re trying to solve. What’s the policy question you need answered? Focus more on that and less on solutions. The solutions will present themselves.

Which brings me to the second point. Create an environment, whether it’s through cooperative decision-making or government mechanisms, to bring stakeholders together to hash these things out with you. This yields real solutions. But more importantly, it helps you establish a sense across the industry that you’re all working together towards solving a common set of problems. And that is so valuable, because that goodwill is what enables you to get past really tough issues.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta speaking to the press about the implementation of the agency’s Part 107 drone regulations in September, 2016. Via YouTube.

Drone I know that you’ve said there really is no crystal ball in any of this, but one of the burning questions is: When will the dream of drone deliveries happen at scale? Do you have an answer?

Huerta I’m probably wrong. Laughs.

It’s the “at scale” that’s a challenge. Because what you’re doing is effectively turning everyone’s front door into an airport. I’ll go out on a limb. I’ll say that certainly within five years you’re going to see it happening in a lot of different places, in a lot of different ways. But, whether they will be by waiver, whether they will be special purpose uses, what have you, I really can’t say. In addition to addressing the technological safety and regulatory questions we’ve been talking about, there’s a series of legal authorities that we need to sort out.

The major one is between the federal government and state and local governments. It was heresy when I said this a number of years ago at a drone conference, but it’s a gray area. Congress has given the FAA explicit authority to regulate the airspace. It has given cities exclusive authority for zoning. And it has given property owners exclusive rights to quiet enjoyment of the airspace over their property. Something has got to give there. The pilot program that the FAA announced earlier this year is really focused on starting to answer some of those issues. You have some of the big players in the drone industry who feel that any deviation from a federal standard would be a bad thing to get what you’re talking about—package delivery at scale.

But I think that there is a middle ground there, and that is what the cities are trying to address. As one mayor once told me, if a citizen wants to complain that their neighbor is getting drone deliveries at all hours of the day, they’re not going to call the FAA. They’re going to call the mayor. So, the question becomes, what are permissible things that cities can do in terms of setting their own rules? But then there’s a second part of that which is equally important. There has to be consistency in how cities interpret their role in integration. And those are more legal than technical questions, and hopefully the pilot program will lead us toward some solutions.


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