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Senate hearing offers insight on FAA UAS progress, future plans

By Luke Geiver | March 16, 2017

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation met this week to hear testimony from unmanned aircraft systems experts, officials and interested parties. During a two-hour long hearing, committee members asked basic questions, offered perspective and pushed for progress reports from six witnesses, including: Earl Lawrence, director of the office of unmanned aircraft systems for the Federal Aviation Administration.

“As all of you know this exciting technology has the capability to change—and in some cases has already—the way companies do business,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

Lawrence, who was asked the most questions during the hearing, told the committee that the FAA has made great strides in its massive efforts to integrate UAS into the airspace. “Since the FAA last testified to this committee, the U.S. has solidified its place as the global leader for UAS integration,” he said, “demonstrating the FAA’s prioritization of UAS.”

To explain the work the FAA has completed, started or continues with, Lawrence offered a list that included initiating a small UAS rule, getting more than 750,000 UAVs and more than 25,000 pilots registered, getting all FAA-selected UAS test sites engaged in active testing procedures, working with NASA to develop a system for UAS integration into the NAS, nearing completion on a pathfinder program to determine how to make beyond-visual-line-of-sight a reality, testing anti-drone technology across the nation at major airports and recently, to move past the FAA-created Part 107 regulations.

“We are doing our best to achieve the right balance between increased operations and safety,” he said.

Diana Marina Cooper, vice president of legal and policy affairs for Precision Hawk USA Inc and President of the sUAV Coalition, said that the industry is at a critical juncture this year. “Our members are making significant contributions to the American economy,” she said. But, Cooper is concerned for her members that the FAA is falling behind on previously started work, notably the notice of proposed rulemaking for sUAV flights over people that was supposed to be issued this year. The FAA has pushed back the deadline for the NPRM, Cooper said, due to national security concerns that were not identified to industry.

Ben Fowke, CEO Xcel Energy, testified that his team is ramping up its use of UAVs. In some cases, drones used to inspect powerlines owned and operated by Xcel can cost only $200/mile versus the $1,200/mile it costs with helicopters.

Today, Fowke wants the FAA and industry to move faster on making BVLOS flights possible. He also wants Congress to look at restricting flight allowances around critical infrastructure. Last year, he said, a small drone landed on a substation near Denver that could have knocked out power to more than 20,000 homes.

Emilio Gonzalez, director and CEO of the Miami-Dade Aviation Department, also voiced his concerns about drones flying near infrastructure, specifically near airports. “The issue of UAS is very important to us,” Gonzalez said. In the past year, the FAA and the test sites have worked with major airports to test anti-drone systems that would limit rogue flights from reaching an airport. Although the Miami-Dade airport was not used as a test site for the trials, Gonzalez said he would welcome any testing at his facility. Every year for the past three years, he added, drone sightings in unrestricted areas have gone up.

John Villasenor, professor of engineering and public policy at UCLA, offered his perspective on the issue of privacy and drones. According to Villasenor, “it is premature to enact broad new legislation aimed at drones and privacy,” noting however, that congress may someday play a vital role in digital privacy.

Throughout the hearing, Lawrence was asked about several different subjects, including the creation of a microUAS rule, progress on its Drone Advisory Committee, the reality of package delivery, work at the test sites and making drones more trackable.

Although the FAA does take into account when and where a drone is flown or used in its rulemaking process, Lawrence did not indicate his team was going to issue any special microUAS rule due to the fact that the FAA wants all operators in any area to be working under the same guidelines to ensure consistently safe operations.

On the progress of the DAC, Lawrence said the FAA has been very happy. “We have to work hard to keep up with them more than the other way around,” he said. “They understand the criticality of this to produce results this year—and not after.”

One of the most important and biggest areas the FAA is working on is figuring out identification and tracking for sUAS. The FAA team has been working with security officials to learn what info would be valuable. On the tech side, the FAA has been testing available options to make tracking and ID’ing drones easier. By this summer, Lawrence hopes to have recommendations to Congress. “It isn’t that there isn’t a technology available,” he said. “It is which one to pick.”