House Committee Investigates Future of Advanced Air Mobility

On Thursday, March 23, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee met to discuss advanced air mobility (AAM) and the future of unmanned aircraft systems UAS). Space & Aeronautics Subcommittee chairman Brian Babin (R-TX) led the hearing, which covered the outlook of UAS and AAM, the status of research and developments, current regulatory restrictions, and other concerns, as well as serving as the hearing for the National Drone and Advanced Air Mobility Act.

Four witnesses testified at the full committee hearing:

  • Jamey Jacob, Executive Director, Oklahoma Institute for Research and Education; Williams Chair in Energy and Professor of Aerospace Engineering, Oklahoma State University
  • Parimal Kopardekar, Director, NASA Aeronautics Research Institute
  • Lisa Ellman, Executive Director, Commercial Drone Alliance
  • Sean Casey, Chief Research and Development Engineer, AirWise Solutions; Adjunct Professor, System Safety and Reliability Analysis at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology

Uses of UAS and AAM: Each of the witnesses spoke at length about the potential uses of AAM. Dr. Parimal Kopardekar explained how drones and UAS traffic management (UTM) systems can be used in fighting wildfires. With remote-operated drones managed by a UTM, the overhead dispersal of water and fire retardants, which is restricted by “eyeball traffic management”, can be expanded to a 24-hour “second shift environment” to continue operations under low visibility conditions.

Another use that several representatives and witnesses touched on was delivery of medical and emergency supplies to disaster areas or remote populations. Dr. Jamey Jacob discussed his work with small businesses using UAS to deliver emergency resources to first responders, such as blood bags for car accidents. Lisa Ellman brought up several examples of companies actively providing these drone services, such as Zipline, Wing, and Matternet, which provide medicine, vaccines, and blood across the world.

Regulatory Obstacles to Developing New UAS: Several witnesses discussed the regulatory obstacles to research and development of UAS, as well as its commercialization. Ellman explained that under current regulations, which were designed for crude aircraft, companies might have to wait several years for a case-by-case approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) before they can begin testing their aircraft. She stated that the previous FAA reauthorization would have granted exceptions for R&D conducted below 400 feet in class G airspace but this was later dropped. She advocated for broad rulemaking that would more directly accommodate for the type of unmanned aircraft that companies and universities are researching.

Several representatives, including Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Rep. Eric Sorensen (D-IL), Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), and Rep. Emilia Sykes (D-OH), asked about the next steps forward to improve regulations and further research and development. Dr. Kopardekar pointed out that, specifically for UAS addressing wildfires, regulations are not as much of a barrier because of temporary flight restrictions in those areas, but increased support from the FAA would allow NASA to move beyond the conceptual stage.

Ellman, who considers beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) flight to be vital for the expansion and scalability of UAS, explained that companies who want to use fly BVLOS must obtain a FAA Part 107 waiver or a Part 135 certification that allows BVLOS flight in restricted, lightly populated areas. She says the FAA’s BEYOND program, which conducts research on UAS flying BVLOS, particularly for government agencies and universities, is not enough for private companies.

Integration into National Airspace System (NAS): An important aspect of UAS will be communicating with other drones, aircraft, and the ground to safely integrate drones into the NAS. Dr. Kopardekar explained that Detect and Avoid (DAA) capabilities are necessary to being able to fly unmanned aircraft in national airspace.

Supply Chain: Another concern the committee discussed was the supply chain and manufacturing of UAS components. Rep. Babin asked about the vulnerability of offshoring manufacturing and what NASA is doing to identify specific problems in the supply chain, and Rep. Summer Lee (D-PA) asked about how research and development is helping issues in the supply chain. Dr. Kopardekar pointed out that 50 percent of UAS jobs are in the supply chain. He explained that NASA and the Department of Defense started a working group which educated new businesses about the importance of building a resilient supply chain early. NASA also has the Minority University Research and Education Program, which has given out six grants to help build the supply chain and workforce of UAS.

Workforce Concerns: In addition to supply chain concerns, representatives also questioned how companies and organizations are building the workforce for UAS. Rep. Valerie Foushee (D-NC) asked about the importance of UAS training programs and opportunities for workforce development. Ellman mentioned the Drone Infrastructure and Inspection Grant (DIIG) Act, which has provided drone training programs for universities and community colleges. Dr. Kopardekar discussed several programs, including the University Leadership Initiative, Minority University Research and Education Program, and the NASA Community of Aerospace Scholars, several of which focus on providing UAS training and resources to community college students. He also touched on programs that help reach elementary and middle school students to increase their interest in science and aerospace. Rep. Max Miller (R-OH) also inquired about how research is identifying the training needs of the future workforce. Jacob discussed how the Oklahoma State University Counter-UAS Center of Excellence trains military personnel to detect and identify UAS.

National Security: The hearing also touched on various national security concerns. Rep. Babin and Jacob both discussed how drones and components of drones used in the US are made in China, which limits the usage of the drones for national security purposes and indicates China’s increased prominence in the field of UAS. Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-24) pointed out that 70 to 80 percent of the UAS market in the US is controlled by nine companies, circling back to the issue of the supply chain. Ellman suggested opening R&D or UAS and counter-UAS to more actors, rather than limiting it to government agencies. Rep. Miller asked what can help restore US leadership in aviation. Witness Sean Casey discussed the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) Blue certification, which clears UAS for use by the Department of Defense. He believes the government should support US manufacturers in being cleared and offloading this certification from the DIU.

National Drone and AAM Act: Since this served as the legislative hearing for the National Drone and AAM Act, several representatives and witnesses discussed aspects of the act. Ellman provided several suggestions to improve the act:

  • Leverage existing resources such as the Awards to Stimulate and Support Undergraduate Research Experiences (ASSURE) program, BEYOND program, and UAS test sites.
  • Focus on validating future UAS capabilities in complex airspace.
  • Take additional measures to support growth of UAS and AAM manufacturing capabilities in the US.
  • Support the integration of counter-UAS technologies into complex civil environments.

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