On Wednesday the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a hearing titled “Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Innovation, Integration, Successes, and Challenges.” The hearing examined public policy issues related to the safe integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) in the national airspace system. It also explored practical applications for this emerging technology, as well as developing economic, privacy, and safety implications. Testimony was provided by representatives of the FAA, Precision Hawk USA Inc., Xcel Energy, DJI, the Hoover Institution, and the Miami-Dade Aviation Department.
Earl Lawrence of the FAA highlighted the success of two significant regulations in his testimony- the small UAS registration rule and the small UAS rule (Part 107). Lawrence stated that over 750,000 small UAS owners have registered since the small UAS registration rule went into effect. Part 107 introduced a new pilot certificate that is specific for UAS operations-the Remote Pilot Certificate. “The small UAS rule provides UAS operators with unprecedented access to the National Airspace System while also ensuring the safety of the skies, and was largely well received by the UAS industry,” said Lawrence. He also identified and discussed significant issues and challenges to UAS integration including beyond the visual line-of-sight (BLVOS) operations, preemption, privacy, enforcement, and security – both physical and cyber.
Diana Marina Cooper of Precision Hawk USA Inc and the UAV Coalition expressed the importance of unmanned traffic management (UTM), an automated UAS traffic management system for low-altitude airspace. Cooper said, “One of the most significant components of UTM is the ability to – in real-time – remotely identify and authenticate a UAS operator.” Cooper urged the committee to “expedite the safe integration of UAS by mandating that a UTM system be established in stages within a concrete timeline.” She explained how Precision Hawk, as a partner of the FAA’s Pathfinder program, has been developing operational standards and testing technologies to support the safe introduction of extended and beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations into the national airspace. Cooper detailed the immense safety, economic, and social benefits of commercial UAS operations and urged the FAA to not further delay the already past-due notice of proposed rule-making (NPRM) for commercial operations over people.
Ben Fowke of Xcel Energy is a member of the National Infrastructure Advisory Council where he is responsible for advising the Council President on ways that the nation can protect its critical infrastructure. Fowke explains how UAS technology is used in inspections of remote transmission lines and maintenance on boilers and power plant equipment that can be ten stories tall. Fowke said, “The benefits of the technology are obvious: we save money and can maintain our equipment more safely.” He estimated that each Xcel Energy plant that use UAS inspections will have $1 million in cost savings over two years. Fowke states that electricity and natural gas are essential services to the American people and, as such, warrant different regulatory treatment than other commercial users of UAS. He requested that the committee expand the authority of utilities to use UAS in BVLOS operations and to prevent unauthorized use of UAS around critical infrastructure.
Brendan Schulman of DJI described the advancements in UAS safety features including geofencing technology, automatic altitude limitations, voice warnings, speed limitations, and on-screen situational awareness. Schulman says there is room for improvement in the FAA approval process for Part 107 flights in controlled airspace and supports “releasing guidance in the form of maps showing where approvals would actually be granted” as well as “restoring the option for local air traffic controllers to grant these approvals.” He explained that DJI recently released a research paper which concluded that a lowest-risk UAS category ought to be defined at a weight threshold of two kilograms. Schulman voiced opposition to Section 2124, which would require FAA approval for each make and model of UAS prior to sale, because “such a requirement would halt innovation in its tracks by preventing new products from being released.” According to his testimony, there were nearly 300 state bills introduced in 2016 that concerned drones. Schulman is a member of the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee (DAC) which is working to reach consensus on the roles and responsibilities of different levels of government. The DAC will issue an interim report to the FAA by May 2017.
John Villasenor of UCLA and the Hoover Institution provided insight on privacy issues in relation to UASs operated by government non-government entities. Villasenor believes it would be “premature to enact broad new federal legislation specifically directed to unmanned aircraft privacy.” However, should federal lawmakers decide to address privacy concerns, he strongly suggests doing so in a way that “does not inadvertently infringe the First Amendment rights of the many unmanned aircraft users who will operate their platforms in responsible, non-privacy-violating ways.” Villasenor explains that the privacy concerns with UAS technology are similar to those of other rapidly changing technologies including the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, location-aware smartphone applications, and always-on consumer devices equipped with video and/or audio capabilities. Villasenor explains there is already a substantial privacy framework in the Fourth Amendment and a significant set of protections at the state level with invasion of privacy statutes. “Congress has a vital role in addressing the privacy challenges raised by emerging technologies. Part of that role involves knowing when not to legislate,” said Villasenor.
Emilio Gonzalez of the Miami-Dade Aviation Department told the committee how drones pose a threat to the flying public. “This high proliferation of drone use near our airport and others nationwide is dangerous at best, and the worst-case scenario would be catastrophic to our community, our local economy, and without question, to the national aviation industry as a whole,” said Gonzalez. He acknowledged that there are legitimate commercial uses for drones but said “at my airport, we don’t need to have this, and from a critical infrastructure perspective, my job is to look for ways to bring these down.” Miami-Dade County has an ordinance that prohibits drones from being flown within one mile of the end of an airport runway, unless authorized by the FAA, and carries with it a civil penalty of $500 – the maximum County fine available. However, Gonzalez believes there should be stronger deterrents and explained the difficulties of enforcement. He said his department is actively exploring geo-fence and other drone mitigation technology that can prevent drones from flying within the one-mile boundary.
We will continue to monitor these hearings and inform NASAO members of all major developments. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact John Shea at (703) 610-0272.