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Congress Plays To Public UAS Fears

Will Congress actually do something to help integrate UAS into the national airspace or will it do what Congress does best?
By Patrick C. Miller | March 17, 2016

What would a Congressional hearing be without political grandstanding? On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation met to markup S. 2658, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2016.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, expressed his concerns about drones and privacy, an area in which legal experts with whom I’ve discussed the issue say the FAA rightfully should not be involved. But Nelson is convinced that drones peering through windows of private citizens’ homes to obtain information off tax returns carelessly left lying around is a major threat to our personal liberties. He thinks the FAA needs to do something about it.

Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, the committee’s chair, argued against privacy provisions being included in the bill, saying that they went too far and saddled the UAS industry with burdens that don’t apply to other industries. But he lost that debate and the amendment was included.

I am not as much concerned about the possibility of drones looking in my windows to steal sensitive tax information as I am with the possibility of a hackers in foreign countries getting their hands on the information or the federal government using it to target me for political purposes. Both of those scenarios seem far more likely than the one Nelson imagines.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, pleaded with his colleagues not to include an amendment that requires the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop a risk-based system to determine where UAS can fly commercially. He said his state has lost 19,000 jobs and can’t afford to lose one more.

Manchin wants to protect the truck drivers who deliver packages in his state from the drone pilots that Amazon, Google and other retailers want to eventually use. He seemed convinced that none of the pilots, technicians or other support personnel used for UAS package delivery would be located in West Virginia. Isn’t it possible that Manchin’s state would be better off embracing the inevitable change that UAS will bring instead of working to delay it?

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, fought for her amendment—which was passed—to establish a UAS traffic management system that supports NASA’s work in this key area. Cantwell is correct that the FAA hasn’t been as responsive as desired and thus has brought some of this political pushback on itself.

I’ve never understood how it is that Congress can set specific deadlines for a federal agency to meet and then have the agency act as if following the laws passed by elected representatives is optional. To a certain degree, I understand Congress’ frustration with the FAA. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the agency announces measures to advance UAS integration just ahead of Congressional hearings on the subject.

Where I disagree with Cantwell is her characterization of the UAS traffic management system as an area in which very little is being done and where little will happen unless Congress gets involved. We’ve covered this subject extensively in UAS Magazine. I believe that not only have NASA and the FAA made significant technological strides that will enable drones to operate in the national airspace, but that they’ve also developed a well-thought-out plan for rolling out a UAS traffic management system.

I agree with Nelson that in drafting its FAA reauthorization bill, the Senate has acted in a more bipartisan manner. It has also has avoided such thorny political issues as privatizing the national air traffic control system, a provision included in the House version of the bill.

In the end, I suspect the UAS attorney Enrico Schaefer is right: Congress will pass a bill that does little more than fund the FAA to keep it operating for another year. The tough issues will be reserved for another administration and another Congress. Nobody kicks the can down the road better than Congress.