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House Aviation Hearing Held on Emerging UAS Issues

The House Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation convened on Thursday to discuss the use and integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in the national airspace system (NAS). The Subcommittee received testimony from two panels. The first panel consisted of a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, Southern Company, AirMap, and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). The second panel included the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Deputy Administrator, who was accompanied by the FAA UAS Integration Office Director. Some of the key topics discussed at today’s hearing included UAS capabilities and applications, aviation safety, legislation, executive actions, rulemakings and advisory committees.

In Subcommittee Chairman Frank LoBiondo’s (R-NJ) opening statement, he stressed the need to diligently move forward with UAS integration in order to maintain American leadership in aviation. Chairman LoBiondo highlighted the importance of safety, referencing two recent drone collision incidences. He also cited an FAA report released yesterday that shows drones strikes can cause more damage to manned aircraft than a comparably-sized bird.

Transportation Committee Ranking Member Peter Defazio (D-OR) stated that the commercial application of drones has incredible promise across a multitude of disciplines if it is well regulated. He suggested that the biggest threat was people operating toy drones illegally. Ranking Member Defazio stated that he could not fathom why all toy drones in this country aren’t required to have geofencing technology that isn’t easily hackable.

AirMap General Counsel Mr. Bill Goodwin explained how countries are competing with the United States to integrate drones into their airspace more quickly, and their openness to experimentation has accelerated into regulatory action and standards-setting that threatens to leave American businesses behind. Goodwin said Congress should expedite and prioritize the establishment of an operational UAS traffic management (UTM) system by 2020. Goodwin stated that Congress should apply support and resources towards the FAA UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP) to leverage state, local, and tribal governments to enable expanded drone operations. He stated that the UAS IPP should serve as a permanent pathway for the United States to enable an unlimited number of expanded operations by using state, tribal, and local governments as laboratories of innovation. He also recommended that Congress ensure that a remote identification and tracking system based on licensed spectrum is established to enable nationwide expanded drone operations. AirMap, a NASAO partner, has been a leading proponent of federal, state, and local cooperation on UAS integration — as opposed to outright federal preemption — long before the announcement of the UAS IPP.

AUVSI President and CEO Brian Wynne explained that his organization was glad Congress recently restored UAS registration for recreational operators as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, but stated, “this piecemeal approach to solving issues regarding both commercial and recreational operators may slow progress and hinder efforts to move the industry forward.” He suggested it may therefore be necessary for Congress to reevaluate the Special Rule for Model Aircraft to address security concerns and streamline the process for future regulations. Wynne’s written testimony also states, “Maintaining federal sovereignty of the airspace keeps our skies safe and helps foster innovation, but soliciting input from non-federal bodies such as states, municipalities and tribal governments will be integral to moving federal regulations forward.”

Later in the hearing Rep. Jason Lewis (R-MN), asked Wynne if he thought that state and local governments should have no ability whatsoever to directly create time, manner, and place restrictions on low-level, small UAS when it doesn’t interfere with interstate commerce. Wynne implied that was not what he was saying, but the real issue was whether or not states and local authorities were willing and capable of doing so. Rep. Lewis pointed out that a drone flying near a school or hovering in someone’s backyard near the upstairs window would most likely prompt a call to local authorities and not the FAA. Goodwin provided two examples of reasonable time, manner, and place restrictions set at the state and local level – highway speed limits and trash collection times – and explained their applicability to the question at hand.

Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Dr. Juan J. Alonso focused his testimony on three separate areas of the regulatory environment that he believes can further enhance capabilities and attempt to solve the policy-technology dilemmas that the US is currently facing. He suggested we need more flight testing, quality data that can be applied to inform requirements/regulations for different levels of service in the NAS, and a regulatory environment that provides a reasonable expectation of periodic and timely updates. “It would be beneficial to ensure that the FAA embarks on a yearly cycle of updates to the existing rules,” said Alonso.

Southern Company Executive Vice President and Chief Transmission Officer Mr. Billy Ball explained how his industry was one of the earliest to use drones for inspections and the enhanced safety they have experienced. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Southern Company was able to provide mutual assistance to Centerpoint by providing six UAS teams that made multiple flights in areas no longer easily accessible due to flooding. He stated that additional flights would have been possible with fewer regulatory restrictions. He concluded his testimony by calling on the FAA to finish the guidance and rulemakings called for in the 2016 FAA bill and to work with end users to use Part 107 waivers to advance drone technology while continuing work on the next phase of regulation.

FAA Deputy Administrator Daniel Elwell said that in 2017 the FAA has averaged nearly 200 reports per month from pilots reporting drone sightings near manned planes. The FAA registered about 1,800 reports in 2016 and 1,200 in 2015. Another noteworthy takeaway was that Elwell would not commit to a timeline for when the agency would release a long-awaited proposed rule governing the flight of drones over people. The proposal has been delayed since the end of the Obama Administration so the agency can address concerns raised by national security interests. The UAS Identification and Tracking Aviation Rulemaking Committee, which NASAO served on, recently submitted its final report, which means the next step for the FAA would generally be to release a proposal.

FAA UAS Integration Office Director Earl Lawrence told Subcommittee members “identification is now at the top of our priority.” The technology for identifying drones in flight is evolving very quickly, he said, so the agency had taken care to solicit broad industry input. But with that information now gathered, the FAA is now “moving forward with our rule-making activity,” he said.

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