Senate hearing addresses UAS registration, safety, integration

By Luke Geiver | October 29, 2015

The interest and concern of Congress on the integration of unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace was on display again this week. The U.S. Senate Appropriations subcommittee held a hearing titled, “Transportation, Housing & Urban Development: Integrating Unmanned Aircraft Systems Technology into the National Airspace System.”

Led by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the hearing included three experts from the aerospace industry, including Michael Huerta, administrator for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration; Marty Rogers, deputy director for the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (ASSURE) and Tim Canoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association International.  Both the FAA and Canoll participated in a UAS House hearing earlier in the month.

Like many of the previous UAS hearings organized and run by Congress, the themes and issues discussed were varied and similar to previous discussions held by Congress and members of the aerospace industry.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-RI, called the hearing timely based on its proximity to the recently announced drone registration proposed and under development by the FAA. “We all understand that these drones are changing the way we do business,” he said. “The FAA to my amazement is estimating that 700,000 to 1 million [drones] will be sold as holiday gifts this year,” adding that “these are exciting developments for many reasons.”

To Huerta, Reed asked how the FAA and the US is working to ensure drones are used safely and how operators are learning how to fly in a safe manner. Safe integration of UAS into the NAS is multifaceted, Huerta said, “and we must be nimble in our approach.” To illustrate his description, Huerta said the FAA is working to constantly educate the operating and non-operating drone community on safety. Its KnowBeforeUFly campaign is a major element of the FAA’s work to ensure safety. It is also working with the National Football League to promote safe use of UAS by screening promo videos at football stadiums.

The registration program currently under development by the FAA is another option to educate UAS users, Huerta said. It also gives the FAA a better ability to identify operators who violate the rules of the air. The registration process, he said, “creates a culture of accountability.”

While many senators in the room displayed a positive and optimistic attitude towards bringing UAS into the NAS, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said that she did not share the excitement of drones. Feinstein’s displeasure with UAVs stemed from reports given to her from various entities operating with California that have concerns about drones interfering with the safe operation of flights or wildfire fighting efforts conducted via air.

According to Feinstein, she will introduce legislation as part of the FAA reauthorization that will add additional regulatory power to the FAA or Congress to ensure drone safety. One of her suggestions for greater safety was a requirement of manufacturers to install certain safe gaurds into certain sized platforms.

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Mississippi, asked Huerta if the FAA is making progress on integrating UAS into the NAS or if “we are wasting our time.”

Huerta said that the FAA is making progress, and that by design, the process was slow. The FAA is also working to deal with the changing focus of Congress regarding UAVs. Roughly 18 months ago, privacy was a big issue, Huerta said. Then, six months later getting UAS into NAS faster was the big issue. Today, he added, safety is a big issue.

Marty Rogers, deputy director for ASSURE, the recently formed group appointed to lead UAS into the NAS efforts along with work of the six FAA selected test sites, said that his team is still burdened by the slow nature of the FAA. Because the ASSURE team is the best and brightest in the UAS community, he said, the team should be allowed to take off some of the burden of bringing UAS into the NAS that the FAA is facing. “It’s not possible to overstate the value of the combined ASSURE team and the test sites,” he said.

Tim Canoll, president of the ALPAI, mimicked his remarks from a hearing earlier in October, calling for the UAS industry to implement certain technologies and safety requirements.

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