U.S. House Aviation Subcommittee tackles UAS issues

By Patrick C. Miller | December 07, 2017

In Washington, D.C., the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee last week held its first hearing solely dedicated to the topic of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). 

The hearing on the emerging uses of UAS in a changing national airspace covered technological, legal and policy issues related to UAS. Drone safety, privacy and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations were among the topics discussed by committee members and those presenting testimony.

“We are seeing industry and government work closely together toward the common goal of UAS integration and keeping the United States ahead of the rest of the world in the development and integration of this new aviation technology,” said Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., subcommittee chairman. “Collaboration will help spur job creation and research here in the United States rather than overseas.”

Juan Alonso, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University and member of the FAA Drone Advisory Committee, recommended that the FAA update its UAS regulations annually and conduct more research on unmanned aircraft.

To improve safety, he said, “We need more testing, not less. Test programs should be significantly enhanced. We need to use data to better understand safety.” Alonso stressed that research data must be open to the UAS community and should be “of sufficient quality in sufficient amounts to support regulation.”

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., questioned why “toy drones” are being sold without geofencing to keep them out of restricted flight areas. ”It’s an accident waiting to happen and we are going to lose an aircraft,” he said. “It’s just a question of whether it’s a small one or a large one.”

DeFazio said the rights of “toy drone” operators shouldn’t be a concern and advocated that the FAA devote more resources to tracking down and jailing “idiots” rather than fining them. “Commercial applications should not be held back because of irresponsible people,” he said.

Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., questioned Brian Wynne, president and CEO, Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), about why the UAS industry hasn’t developed a remote identification system that shows who’s flying drones where they shouldn’t be. Wynne noted that such systems are required for manned aircraft and agreed that all UAS should be registered and equipped with a remote ID system.

Shuster pressed Wynne further, asking, “Why haven’t we been able to get to that? We’ve been dealing with it for several years.” Wynne responded by saying that the issue has “been elevated in priority” and that he expected it to be resolved soon.

In his prepared testimony, Wynne identified several areas where industry-government collaboration can help further the UAS industry, including UAS traffic management and Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC). He also cited recent public initiatives helping to advance the UAS industry, such as the restoration of UAS registration and the establishment by the White House of a UAS Integration Pilot Program for state, local and tribal governments to provide input on UAS regulation to the FAA.

“The UAS industry is primed for incredible growth, thanks to industry representatives and government regulators nurturing innovation that helps businesses be competitive in the marketplace,” Wynne said. “We hope that these efforts can be sustained, that a long-term FAA bill can be passed, and that together we continue to reach new historic milestones in integrating this technology into the national airspace and pave the way for regular and widespread UAS use.”

William Ball, executive vice president and chief transmission officer with the Southern Co., discussed how the utility has benefited from using UAS for the inspection of electrical transmission lines and pipelines. He noted that the company had provided six UAS teams to Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and used 16 drone teams for damage assessment following Hurricane Irma.

Ball said the benefits of drones to the utility industry in terms of safety and efficiency are overwhelming, but that the FAA needs to finish the guidance and rulemaking it started in 2016. “Whatever the rules are, we will gladly comply,” he said. “We just need to know what they are.”

Other presenting testimony included: William Goodwin, general counsel for AirMap; Daniel Elwell, FAA deputy administrator; and Earl Lawrence, director of the FAA UAS Integration Office.