What Michael Whitaker’s confirmation as FAA Administrator means for the drone industry

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday unanimously confirmed Michael Whitaker to serve as administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), where he’s set to serve a five year term.

Up until now, Whitaker had been the chief operating officer of Supernal, which is a Hyundai Motor Group company designing an electric advanced air mobility vehicle. Given that role, he’s set to bring a particularly compelling perspective to the FAA’s handling of drones and other uncrewed vehicles.

Here are four ways that Michael Whitaker’s confirmation as FAA Administrator can impact (or already has impacted) the drone industry:

1. Drone advocacy groups have already welcomed him

If the drone lobbyists and advocacy groups are any indication, Whitaker is a welcome addition to the drone industry. The Commercial Drone Alliance came out in clear support of him, referencing his deep background in advanced aviation.

““The commercial drone industry can offer many societal benefits, but only if policy keeps up with technology,” said Lisa Ellman, Executive Director of the Commercial Drone Alliance. “We are counting on Mike Whitaker’s leadership to spur action on long-awaited regulatory items such as beyond visual line of sight and expanded drone operations, which will ultimately usher in the next era of advanced aviation.”

The Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) shared a similar sentiment.

“We look forward to working with Administrator Whitaker and the FAA to support a 21st century regulatory framework that enables routine, scalable and secure drone and Advanced Air Mobility operations,” AUVSI President and CEO Brian Wynne said.

2. He has a history of modernizing aspects of the FAA

Those two names above point to modernization being critical, and Whitaker already has examples of modernizing the FAA on his resume. In fact, Michael Whitaker served as Deputy Administrator at the FAA from 2013 to 2016.

During that time, he brought industry and government together to drive the successful transition of the nation’s air traffic control system from radar to a satellite-enabled surveillance technology (ABS-B).  Space-based ADS-B is considered beneficial because it can reduce restricted altitudes, air speeds or routes for aircraft operations.

3. His current company, Supernal, has already had a big impact in uncrewed aviation

Given his most recent job as Chief Operating Officer at , Whitaker had major influence over the company — which in itself has made big waves in the realm of uncrewed aviation. Supernal, which is a division of the Hyundai Motor Group, is building electric air vehicles that take off and land vertically (like a helicopter) through a network of connected ground hubs called vertiports.

Supernal has said that they expect to operate services by 2028. And for what it’s worth, they’ve positioned themselves well to do it.

Just this month, Honeywell and Supernal announced a collaboration to develop a ground control station designed to enable pilotless Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) operations, meaning that remote pilots can better monitor and command aircraft in real-time — paying special attention to aircraft flying outside of their actual line of sight.

That’s just the software side of things. On the hardware side, Supernal this month announced a partnership with Korean Air to help accelerate the design of the actual electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicle.

Of course, it’s often not the technology that’s the challenge though. Many drone industry pros will tell you that the biggest challenge for drones is actually the policy and people side. Supernal is accounting for that too, having opened a new office in Washington, D.C. this summer focused primarily on policy-making. Supernal said it plans to hire an additional 20 employees in Washington, D.C. this year, bringing the Company’s total headcount to more than 500.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Supernal and the FAA seem to trade people. In February 2023, Jay Merkle, who was the executive director of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office, announced that he would become the senior director of regulatory affairs at Supernal.

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Michael Whitaker, nominee to be the next administrator of the FAA, testifies during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing on Capitol Hill October 4, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

4. Having any sort of leadership is welcome

Whether Whitaker or anyone else, really, Whitaker’s confirmation had been seen as a positive development for the drone industry, which has been eagerly awaiting a permanent leader at the FAA after going more than a year and a half without one.

Stephen Dickson, who was an appointee of former President Donald Trump, stepped down last year. Polly Trottenberg was working as an interim, acting administrator, but a federal law limiting how long she could run the agency on what’s considered an acting basis has limited her tenure.

Overall, Whitaker’s confirmation as FAA administrator is shaping up to be a generally positive development for the drone industry, based on most industry experts.

Whitaker is an experienced and knowledgeable aviation leader, and his resume suggests he is supportive of drone innovation. Under his leadership, the FAA is expected to develop new drone regulations that will allow for the safe and responsible expansion of the drone industry in the United States. Time will tell how that shakes out.

What do you think about the confirmation of Michael Whitaker as administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration? Good, bad, or neutral? Leave a comment below!

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