House hearing tackles UAS safety, commercialization issues

By Patrick C. Miller | December 10, 2014

During a hearing Tuesday on issues related to unmanned aerial systems, members of the U.S. House Aviation Subcommittee didn’t receive many firm answers from Peggy Gilligan, the Federal Aviation Administration’s associate administrator for aviation safety.

The hearing was mostly cordial as House members pressed Gilligan for information on the FAA’s plans and policies for UAS regulations. However, there was frustration expressed by industry representatives, other federal officials and members of Congress by delays and lack of progress in UAS commercialization.

When asked why so few exemptions had been granted under Section 333 which enables the agency to expedite integration of UAS into the national airspace, Gilligan noted that the FAA had just granted five more exemptions for a total of 12 to date.

However, she admitted that more than 160 exemption requests have been filed and conceded that the process needs to speed up. The problem, she noted, is that each request is “more unique than we expected.”

Gilligan would not comment on questions about the pending FAA regulations for small UAS because they are currently under executive review and must still undergo a public comment period of 60-90 days.

“The small UAS rule has been delayed beyond what any of us thinks is acceptable,” she noted.

Clearly exasperated by the comment, Congressman Thomas Massie, R-Ky., asked, “Is the rule moving in geological or Internet speed?”

Subcommittee Chairman Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., said the hearing’s purpose was to discuss the UAS industry’s future, what progress the government has or hasn’t made, what the industry and the FAA need, and how Congress can assist them as it considers the next FAA reauthorization bill.

Others presenting testimony included: Matthew Hampton, assistant inspector general for aviation audits, U.S. Department of Transportation; Gerald Dillingham, director of civil aviation issues, Government Accountability Office; Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association; Jesse Kallman, Airware’s head of business development and regulatory affairs; and Nicholas Roy, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Most of the discussion focused on safety, whether the U.S. can maintain its competitive edge in UAS technology; the process used for approving exemptions and certificates of authorization; and how the FAA can work better its six test sites designated for UAS research.

In prepared opening remarks, LoBiondo said, “Our nation’s safety record is the result of decades of hard work by thousands, and also some hard lessons learned.  Safety is the cornerstone of the U.S. aviation industry, and without it, the UAS industry cannot succeed, period.”

The Congressman said he was concerned about reports in the media of American companies taking their research and development projects overseas because the FAA’s regulations are “too burdensome.”

Noting that UAS technology has been successfully used for commercial work in other countries, LoBiondo asked, “I can’t help but wonder that if the Germans, French, and Canadians can do some of these things today, then why can’t we also be doing them?”

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wa., said, “While we must hold safety paramount, we don’t want to fall needlessly behind. We must keep safe integration on track so we’re not here in 2024 talking about integrating UAS into the national airspace.”

Airware’s Kallman and Roy—who headed Google’s Project Wing package delivery project using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)—were optimistic that there will soon be technical solutions to most UAS safety issues. However, from Moak’s commercial airline pilot perspective, safety should be the FAA’s primary focus.

Noting that America’s airspace is “the most dynamic and diverse on planet,” Moak referenced two recent incidents in which UAVs nearly collided with an emergency services helicopter and an airliner.

After showing photos of aircraft damage caused by bird strikes and explaining that a UAV’s composition gives it the potential to cause even greater damage, Moak said, “We’d be having a different hearing if those collisions had occurred.”

Given the altitudes at which UAVs can operate, their availability to the public and their ability to operate autonomously, Moak said, “We need to recognize UAVs as a safety risk if we don’t treat them as what they are: airplanes in the airspace.”

Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., also expressed concerns about the increasing number of UAVs being operated by people with no flight experience. “These are people enjoying toys and don’t have that sense of responsibility. All it’s going to take is one horrific accident,” she said.

Moak said it’s imperative for UAS pilots to be properly trained and “understand the consequences of potential failures.” He noted that art of the problem is that the FAA’s resources are limited and called on Congress to provide “realistic funding” that enables the agency to safely integrate UAS into the national airspace.

Gilligan said the FAA’s focus was on education and that it is working with manufacturers to provide instructions on what UAV operators can and cannot do. She said the agency is also working with local law enforcement agencies that are in a better position to deal with violations.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore, advocated a system of licensing and registering UAV operators, using the fees to help the FAA enforce regulations.

“People putting people at risk need to be prosecuted,” he said.

The hearing addressed how the FAA’s six designated test sites can assist industry with UAS research, development and commercialization. Gilligan said the FAA was supporting the test sites to make them attractive to industry and is working on fixing problems and improving communications with the sites.

Congresswoman Dina Titus, D-Nev., said the initial enthusiasm of being designated as an FAA UAS test site is waning in Nevada because it’s “not producing as we thought it would.”

After expressing frustration with intellectual property protection issues and delays in obtaining FAA certificates of authorization, Titus said, “I don’t know why a business just won’t go to test in Canada instead of going to one of our test sites.”

Dillingham said that the DOT had conducted interviews at half of the FAA test sites and all had expressed problems in dealing with the FAA. However, he said that while the steps Gilligan stated should help address the issues, he expressed concern about Canada’s plan to “designate a very large airspace for testing up to 18,000 feet.”

The hearing included current subcommittee members and some newly elected members of the next Congress who will be serving on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. LoBiondo noted that several of the representatives were pilots or had experience in aviation.