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House Aviation Subcommittee Hearing on UAS Safety

The House Aviation Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ), held a hearing today entitled “Ensuring Aviation Safety in the Era of Unmanned Aircraft Systems” to examine Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) safety issues in response to the marked increase in reports of unauthorized UAS operating at and around airports, in airspace over wildfires, and in the flight paths of manned aircraft. Representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), United States Forest Service,  Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), and Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) appeared before the Subcommittee to discuss possible technological, regulatory, and legislative approaches to mitigate safety hazards associated with the increasing prevalence of UAS operating in the National Airspace System (NAS).

Chairman LoBiondo noted that there have already been more than 600 “close-proximity” UAS sightings by pilots in 2015 compared to 238 in all of 2014. “Safety is paramount in aviation and the increased number of suspected sightings raises serious questions,” said LoBiondo. “The real possibility of a mid-air collision must be taken seriously in order to prevent tragic consequences.” LoBiondo asked Michael G. Whitaker, Deputy Administrator of the FAA, what the agency is currently doing to curtail the illegal use of drones and if they need additional authority to take effective enforcement action. Whitaker noted that it is less a question of authority, and more of an issue of effectively locating and identifying the operators of UAS, as pilots can report the locations of UAS, but not the location of remote operators.  Whitaker indicated that the FAA signed an agreement this week with CACI International Inc. to test new UAS sensor technology to detect the radio signals of UAS operating within five miles of an airport.

Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR), the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, expressed a need for a uniform registration system to allow authorities to effectively trace UAS back to the owners and operators. In addition, DeFazio stated that there needs to be “serious consequences” for unlawful operators. The FAA noted that they have investigated several hundred incidents, but have only taken enforcement action on 21-including a recently announced $1.9 million civil penalty imposed on a company that knowingly operated multiple UAS flights in restricted airspace in New York and Chicago.  Subcommittee member Representative John Garamendi (D-CA) expressed the need for stricter criminal penalties, and introduced new standalone legislation that would include jail time for unlawful UAS operations within two miles of airports and within restricted airspace.

ALPA President, Tim Cannoll presented a video to the Subcommittee to demonstrate the difficulty for pilots to visually detect UAS in flight-compared to traditional aircraft-in order to perform timely collision avoidance maneuvers. “For pilots, these UAS literally appear out of the blue,” Cannoll told the panel. “They are much smaller than other aircraft. Some UAS do not have lights. They have limited contrast against the visual background. And they move much more slowly than airliners.  As a result, these UAS are extremely difficult to see in flight.”  Cannoll stated that UAS must, therefore, be equipped with sense-and-avoid technology and need to be detectable on radar. He also reiterated ALPA’s position that commercial UAS operators should be held to the same certification standards as manned aircraft pilots.

James Hubbard, Deputy Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, indicated 21 documented instances of UAS incursions in the airspace around and over wildfires this season. Twelve of the incidents required firefighters to suspend aerial operations, and in two events, firefighting pilots reported taking “aggressive maneuvering action” to avoid collisions. The Forest Service is coordinating with other federal, state and local agencies to develop public education campaigns and explore utilization of UAS monitoring technologies.

Multiple Representatives on the Subcommittee questioned the FAA’s delay in implementing the proposed small UAS rule and the failure to address recreational UAS operations.  Deputy Administrator Whitaker said that it is the goal of the FAA to finalize the rule by June 2016. In addition, he stated that the FAA does not have the authority to regulate recreational UAS operations, but that they would “step up” educational campaigns such as “Know Before You Fly” and “No Drone Zone” to educate both commercial and recreational operators.

NASAO will continue to advocate for a balanced and measured regulatory approach to UAS integration-allowing the industry to continue to grow and compete globally without sacrificing safety.

Categories: News
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