Lessons From A UAS Congressional Discussion

After spending many hours this year listening to congressional hearings on unmanned aircraft systems, it is clear that the discussion on UAS stays the same as much as it changes. But here is what we know for sure.
By Luke Geiver | October 29, 2015

After spending many hours this year listening to congressional hearings on unmanned aircraft systems, it is clear that the discussion on UAS—whether it is in the house or the senate—stays the same as much as it changes.

Many of the topics and discussion points brought up by politicians during the UAS hearings are similar to previous discussions from other hearings. But, as Michael Huerta, FAA administrator pointed out during a Senate hearing this week, the talking points on UAS have changed over the past year and a half. Nearly 18 months ago, the hot topic was privacy. Six months later, the main discussion was on getting UAS into the NAS faster. Today, the hot topic in the UAS discussion is safety.

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Mississippi, asked Huerta a question regarding all the issues. In summary, he asked Huerta if the FAA is making progress or if we [the U.S.] is wasting its time. Huerta’s answer was that, yes, the FAA is making progress and the pace at which it is doing so is guided by the slow nature of government rulemaking and the reality of the industry’s young nature.

Although Huerta and his team continually remain positioned in a negative light for their perceived slowness in rulemaking, the FAA has in fact made progress in their efforts, and, it is worth noting that some of their efforts are made in the midst of foreign hurdles.

So, to provide more context to Sen. Cochran’s question, consider this.

On privacy, the FAA is only a very small piece of the privacy questioning answering pie. Although congress wants to know more about the steps that have been taken or are possible to deal with privacy concerns voiced by constituents, the FAA was never tasked with finding an answer to that question. But, the National Telecommunications & Information Administration has been asked to develop best practices to enhance privacy and promote transparent and accountable operations of UAS by commercial and private users. We need to ask NTIA about the privacy question, not the FAA. (We are doing just that for a Q4 feature).

On integrating UAS in the NAS quicker, great progress has been made. Today, roughly 2,000 entities are operating UAS for commercial, paid-for purposes. But, that progress—and number of commercially exempt operators able to fly for profit—will someday seem incredibly small based on the activity expected in the industry. Part of the FAA’s issue with expediting UAS into the NAS is related to the vast amount of issues, technologies, concepts and more that it has to deal with. The FAA can only do so much. Maybe even greater progress will be made if the idea of Marty Rogers is adopted. Rogers, deputy director for the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (ASSURE), told the hearing attendees that his team at ASSURE and the six FAA test sites can help take the burden off the FAA. Because our team is constantly checking in with the test sites on new work and completed projects, it is impossible to argue with Rogers. What the ASSURE and test site teams are doing is incredible and could or should lead the FAA to UAS integration into the NAS even more so than it has now.

On safety and regulation, the FAA (I would argue), has taken a very smart approach to dealing with a nearly insurmountable problem. How can the FAA regulate an industry it has very little control over? And, how can it regulate an industry that doesn’t even know is regulated?

The answer is drone registration. But, it isn’t just about being able to find an operator who flew outside of the regulatory guidelines simply by matching a registration number on the platform to a massive database of registered platforms. The registration process is a huge tool the FAA can use to help alleviate the industry’s lack of knowledge about UAS safety. As Huerta said, the FAA can create a more informed community with a culture of understanding about the rules of operating a UAS in the NAS. By asking an operator to register, it will force that registrant to go through a brief educational process that will, if nothing else, make them aware that rules, regs and consequences exist for those that fly a UAV. In some ways, it’s like putting up a street corner camera without actually turning it on. Just the idea and understanding that someone is watching for a particular reason (in this case to enforce rules that are real) a community’s behavior will most likely be altered.