House committee scolds FAA for UAS regulatory delays

By Patrick C. Miller | June 17, 2015

There were more questions than answers during the Wednesday morning House hearing on Capitol Hill that addressed regulations, safety, privacy and a variety of other issues related to unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

Rep. John Mica, R-Florida, chair of the Government Operations Subcommittee of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, was blunt about the deadlines missed by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and its failure to respond to recommendations made by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) a year ago.

“I think you have to have milestones to get things done,” said an obviously frustrated Mica. Regarding the FAA’s still-pending small UAS rule, he said, “We (Congress) intended to have the rule in place, and that has not been met.”

Mica repeatedly asked FAA deputy administrator Michael Whitaker for dates and timelines on when the agency expected to implement rules for small UAS and respond to shortcomings in the UAS regulatory process outlined by an OIG audit.

“Of all agencies we deal with on this committee, the FAA is probably the most unresponsive,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Massachusetts.

Mica said that when government fails to keep up with technology, the laws fall behind. He said it was necessary for Congress to “hold feet to the fire regarding deadlines being set.” After pressing Whitaker for a date on when the sUAS rule would be implemented, the FAA deputy administrator said it would be in place within a year.

In addition to Whitaker, other witnesses included: John Cavolowsky, director of NASA’s Airspace Systems Program Office; Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI); Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of global public policy; and Harley Geiger, advocacy director and senior council with the Center for Democracy and Technology.

“The future is indeed bright for this emerging technology,” said committee chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, after noting that the UAS industry is projected to create 100,000 jobs and generate $482 million in tax revenue by 2025. “The question is whether that future is going to take place here or elsewhere,” he said.

Committee members addressed that point to Misener, who said Amazon continues to conduct research and development in multiple locations on its UAS-based Prime Air delivery system—designed to deliver packages under five pounds to customers near the company’s fulfilment centers in 30 minutes or less.

Although he said Amazon has tested its technology in Canada and the United Kingdom, Misener also admitted that, “No country in which we have distribution facilities has yet adopted rules that would allow commercial UAS package deliveries.” 

When Misener was asked if the FAA was holding back Amazon’s efforts and forcing it to conduct testing overseas, he told the committee, “We have turned that corner with the FAA.”

He said Amazon plans to accelerate its domestic testing, but needs to have operational rules and regulatory approval in place before it can bring the Prime Air service to its customers.

Witnesses agreed that what’s holding back commercial UAS operations is proven sense-and-avoid technology that would enable autonomous beyond line-of-site flights for such purposes as package deliveries, the inspection of pipelines and power lines, and precision agriculture.

“There’s a lot of research and development to prove out and more complex operations we can’t quite do yet,” Wynne said. “We have to make sure it’s well coordinated.”

Privacy was another issue the committee tackled which generated much discussion, but few definite answers. Mica questioned whether UAS-related privacy issues should be addressed by Congress, the FAA, the Executive Branch, the courts or individual states.

“Federal and constitutional law do not provide individuals with clear and meaningful privacy protection from government UAS,” Geiger said. “Public distrust, rooted in a perceived lack of privacy protection, hampers the domestic UAS industry and the growth of the technology.”

Geiger’s organization advocates that Congress pass federal legislation covering “privacy and transparency standards for UAS” and that the industry “adopt a strong and accountable code of conduct.” He said the memorandum on privacy issued by the Obama administration last February doesn’t go far enough because it applies to commercial UAS only.

Mica was pessimistic about whether the regulatory process can move ahead quickly enough to keep up with UAS technology changes and enable commercial operations soon.

“It will take something to move us forward,” he predicted. “There will be an incident. There will be a crash. There will be fatalities. I think it’s inevitable.”


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