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Hearing Shows FAA Facing Conflicting Tasks

By Patrick C. Miller | December 11, 2014

I once had a college philosophy instructor who loved using the word “incongruous” in the context of teaching about inconsistent ideas. For example, if you believed in karma, it wouldn’t make sense to lead a life of crime knowing that you’d pay for your sins in another life.

In thinking of how to describe Wednesday’s U.S. House aviation subcommittee hearing in Washington on a variety of UAS issues, the word “incongruous” came to mind.

Nobody—including the Federal Aviation Administration—is happy about how much time it’s taking to integrate UAS into the national airspace. There are legitimate concerns about America falling behind the curve on the aviation industry’s next technological boom as other countries move more quickly in UAS research, development and commercialization.

Industry and research organizations are pushing the FAA to go faster and be less picky about issuing exemptions and certificates of authorization. Politicians are expressing righteous indignation about government red tape and bureaucratic delays. Understandably, industry and Congress want the economic growth and the new jobs that go with it to occur in the U.S.

But it’s not that simple because there are also legitimate concerns about safety and privacy.

For example, it’s easy to say that farmers should be allowed to use UAVs for precision agriculture in a rural state such as North Dakota with low population and little air traffic. However, if you’re a crop duster piloting an airplane at high speed mere feet off the ground, you’re going to have concerns about sharing the same airspace with a UAV.

And while some may think it’s unreasonable for anyone flying UAS commercially to possess a pilot’s license, an airliner pilot responsible for the lives of hundreds of passengers is going to have a different perspective on who should be allowed to fly a UAV.

Plus, there’s the issue of enforcing whatever UAS laws are passed and regulations are implemented. Who’s going to do that and how likely is it that violators will be held accountable? Does the U.S., as one congressman suggested, need a national UAV licensing and registration program to monitor all operators?

The only clear idea to emerge from the congressional hearing is that we need to find a middle ground when it comes to integrating UAS into the national airspace. Expecting it to happen both quickly and safely are incongruous propositions.