UAS House committee debates drone rules, regs, risks

By Luke Geiver | October 08, 2015

The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s aviation subcommittee met this week to discuss unmanned aircraft systems. Several wide arching issues were discussed and debated, including: the FAA’s plan for issuing the small UAS rule, the possibility of greater regulation on small unmanned aircraft vehicles typically used for hobby purposes and technologic requirements for UAVs operating in the national airspace above 500 feet or near airports.

Missing The Deadline For sUAS Rule

FAA Deputy Administrator responded to several questions throughout the two-hour long hearing, including questions from Rep. John Mica, R-Florida, about the FAA’s plan to release the sUAS rule. In June, Mica led a House committee hearing aimed at pushing the FAA to meet its milestone goals, especially the sUAS rule. Whitaker told Mica the FAA’s goal is to get the rules out to the appropriate government review entities before the end of the year and issue the rule on or before June 17, 2016. The plan for issuing the large UAS rule is much more cloudy. According to Whitaker, the large rule will depend on the technology available at the time of the rulemaking process and the demand by government and industry for the large UAS rule to be issued.

Regulating Small UAVs

In providing his opening remarks, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, talked about the potential for new regulations or rules geared toward sUAS typically used by hobbyists for non-commercial purposes. Due to the vastly increasing presence of sUAV’s on the market, the possibility of in-air collisions are on the rise, he stated. Small UAVs, or toys, need to come with more restrictions to mitigate the risk of collisions caused by operators uneducated about the restrictions of flying in the national airspace. According to DeFazio, sUAVs need to possibly be programmed so they can’t fly over a certain height or in certain areas. “I think we might also have to look at registration,” he said.

When asked what the FAA is doing to mitigate hobbyists from causing unwanted events, Whitaker reminded the committee that the FAA does not currently have the ability to regulate hobbyist use and that it could only do so by writing a rule, an effort Whitaker said would take far too long.

To reduce the possibility of sUAV collisions in the NAS, Whitaker said the FAA team has worked hard to push education. “The demand for recreational drones has exceeded anyone’s expectations,” he said, noting that new recreational drone buyers and operators are not the traditional members of local flying clubs. “They are unaware of what airspace they are operating in. We want people to enjoy this new technology but we want to make sure they do it safely,” he said.

The FAA has already created a KnowBeforeUFly campaign, along with a No Drone Zone effort aimed at airports. Recently, the FAA began working with major sports teams to push public announcements about the safe operation of sUAVs.

Captain Tim Canoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, voiced his support of educating the sUAV community about operating in the NAS. Canoll said the ALPA recognizes that UAS can allow society to perform certain tasks, but that the group has safety concerns. To address those concerns, he outlined a four-point plan to ensure the NAS is a safe space. The plan requires education, drone registration, required technology like ADS-B, and continued penalties and greater enforcement of operators who fly in violation to current regulations.

Rich Hanson, director of government and regulatory affairs for the Academy of Model Aeronautics, said that while his group strongly supports the continued education efforts of the FAA, AMA is also concerned about the inaccurate assessment of small drone encounters with airplanes. In regards to a recent FAA report detailing the growing number of sUAS encounters within the NAS, Hanson said that AMA’s analysis reveals a a more complex picture. “We found that the number of near misses was in the dozens, not in the hundreds,” he said.

Mitigating Drone Risk

Mykel Kochenderfer, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University, said he would be in favor of a registration process for sUAVs. Like Canoll, he was also in favor of certain technology requirements for sUAVs, including altimeter restrictors or geofencing pre-programmed into the system to no allow UAVs from flying near airports. “There are several technologies that can mitigate risk,” he said.

A registrations process could be based on platform capability along with speed, range and altitude variables, Canoll said.

“Our members believe that registration at some levels makes sense,” Hanson said. The difficulty with mitigating safety risks, he added, is related to the type of operator, type of platform and the purpose of the flight. It is harder to reduce risk with new operators uneducated on regulations. “The vast majority, two-thirds of what we are talking about today is what we would call the toy category,” he said.

During the hearing, Whitaker mentioned a new addition to the FAA’s Pathfinder program. The FAA will now work in conjunction with Arlington, Virgnina-based CACI to assess the safety and security capabilities of a CACI product designed to monitor for drone activities around airports. “The agreement provides a proven way to passively detect, identify, and track UAS and their ground-based operators, in order to protect airspace from inadvertent or unlawful misuse of drones near U.S. airports,” said John Mengucci, CACI’s president of US operations.

Whitaker said the FAA is reviewing its jurisdictional reach. It is also working with UAV manufacturers on the possibility of adding safety statements on the package of new drones. The efforts by private industry to do so, Whitaker added, would have to be voluntary.

Test Site Updates

When asked by a representative from Nevada why activity at the six FAA-selected test sites was not more equal amongst all of the sites or why more attention was not being paid to the test sites, Whitaker responded with a brief answer. In addition to the test sites’ role in pushing new research activity for both small and large UAVS, he said, “Test sites are designed to be a marketplace and they have to compete for that work.”

Section 333 Tweaks

An Illinois representative grilled Whitaker on the approval process for section 333 exemptions which allow UAS entities to operate commercially prior to the release of the sUAS rule. In particular, Whitaker was asked if a previously approved 333 holder could go back and tweak the language of the 333 to match the real-world conditions the UAS operator is working under post-333 approval. Whitaker said the FAA has no plans to allow 333 holders to retroactively change previously approved exemptions and that new 333s would need to be granted instead. To date, the FAA believes it has granted more than 1,800 applications along with certificates of authorizations numbering in the thousands for public entites like law enforcement or surveyors to use UAS for public work.

UAS Firefighting

Although little of the hearing revolved around testimony from James Hubbard, deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Hubbard did make it clear that the USFS believes UAVS can be an integral tool in fighting fires pre and post fires. The 2014 first season caused damage to 9 million acres through 47,000 fires. The USFS uses UAVs for situational awareness and to communicate between on-the-ground teams. In 2015, the number of incursions between private UAS operators flying near fires was only two, but in 2015, there were more than 14 incursions. With each flight incursion, or interference, the USFS has to ground their UAVs. The team’s message, Hubbard said, is that “if you fly we can’t.”

In the future, Hubbard also said that “we recognize that UAS is a valuable tool that we want to take advantage of.”