House Hearing Examines Safety Aspects of Recreational Drones

October 8, 2015

In response to an increasing number of reported sightings of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS, or drones) near airports or in regulated airspace, the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) subcommittee on Aviation held a hearing on “Ensuring Aviation Safety in an Era of Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” In his written opening statement, subcommittee chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) noted that, “we need to understand what precisely is going on in our airspace- what’s the actual risk and how do we manage and mitigate [that risk].” The focus of this hearing was recreational drone usage.

This hearing was held a few hours after the FAA proposed the biggest fine ever for unauthorized commercial drone use – $1.9 million for a Chicago-based aerial imaging company specializing in photography of vacant properties that allegedly flew its drones around Chicago and New York City airports multiple times. On the same day, the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA), a standard-setting body for aviation, also released its first set of proposed rules for UAS operation in U.S. airspace

Witnesses were Michael Whitaker, Deputy Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA); James Hubbard, Deputy Chief, State and Private Forestry of the United States Forest Service; Captain Tim Cannoll, President of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA); Rich Hanson, Director of Government and Regulatory Affairs of the Academy of Model Aeronautics; and Dr. Mykel Kochenderfer, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University.

In his opening statement, Whitaker commented that recreational drone usage has exceeded the industry’s expectations. Often new entrants into the use of UAS technology are unaware that they are operating in a shared space. In an effort to educate these new entrants into the airspace, FAA sponsored public outreach campaigns, including the “No Drone Zone” effort in the District of Columbia area.

The FAA’s regulatory tools for drones include the section 333 exemption, which allows FAA to issue exemptions from the UAS moratorium for commercial UAS to operate. While this process was originally conducted on a case-by-case basis, FAA has attempted to make this process more efficient by introducing “summary grants,” which allow FAA to expedite the exemption process for similar exemption cases. FAA has also streamlined the exemption process through introducing a blanket Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) (which is an exemption for governmental UAS usage) for flights at or below 200 feet.

Hubbard’s opening statement highlighted that while “in 2014, [the Forest Service] experienced four incidents during the fire season where a non-participating UAS was flown over or near a wildfire… [not] affect[ing] firefighting aircraft. This season there have been 21 documented instances of UAS incursions near or over wildfires… twelve of the incidents required firefighting aircraft to stop and shut down… [and] in two of the events firefighting pilots reported taking aggressive maneuvering action to avoid a collision.”

Cannoll opened his statement by recognizing that “UAS can perform some tasks more efficiently than other aircraft.” But he warned that FAA numbers show that encounters and sightings between commercial aircraft and UAS are increasing. Cannoll highlighted that UAS often appear “literally out of the blue,” are moving much slower than airliners, and are very difficult to see in flight.

Cannoll highlighted four steps that ALPA believes should be taken to safely integrate UAS into the National Airspace (NAS). These steps are educating anyone who plans on using and operating a UAS, introducing a registration system that can be accessed by the federal government, ensuring that UAS are equipped with technology that does not allow them to exceed specific altitudes that cannot be overridden, and finally ALPA suggests that there should be increased penalties and enforcement of regulations.

Hanson, representing the model aircraft and UAS users, reminded the subcommittee that, “hobbyists have flown model aircraft since before manned aviation began.” He also noted that the United States is experiencing unprecedented growth in UAS, with a projected 700,000 units to be sold in 2015 (some put the figure at 1 million, just during this upcoming holiday season), representing a 63 percent increase from 2014. Hanson commented that the “AMA strongly suggests that technological solutions be geared toward enhancing the operator’s situational awareness and providing the information necessary to make informed and prudent operating decisions.”

Kochenderfer provided an academic perspective, discussing his research on how to manage and analyze risks, and how to identify the best technologies and policies to mitigate these risks. He contended that “the growing popularity of commercially available drones presents a risk that should not be ignored.” He suggested that there should be altitude limitations on where drones can operate and that there are growing technological solutions.

During questioning, witnesses explored the challenges with prosecuting wrongful usage of drones. Whitaker reflected that while pilots can identify where the drones are, it is more challenging to identify who is actually operating the drone. In addition, it was noted that it is challenging to verify drone sightings, as current technology within commercial airliners does not communicate with UAS technology.

There was discussion of the potential of using geofencing technology to create a virtual barrier around certain airspace, specifically airports. (Ed. Note: A geofence is a virtual barrier than employs the geographic positioning system or radio frequency identification to define the parameters of the fence. Some UAS manufacturers already use to restrict use of a forbidden area. For example, Chinese-based DJI implemented geofencing technology in their products, after one of its drones was flown into the White House garden in January – all of Washington, DC’s territory is a no-go zone for drones.) Witnesses noted that this could be problematic in the sense that if the technology disabled a UAS when it encountered the fence that this could result in accidents, as it would be unsafe for a UAS to “fall out of the sky.” It was also noted that there are challenges in ensuring that the database necessary for geofencing would be difficult to accurately maintain.

A number of members and witnesses coalesced around the idea of a need for a registry of UAS ownership. After a series of rounds of questioning, Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA), suggested that the best approach would be a privately operated database, managed by UAS manufacturers, and accessible by the public sector for regulatory enforcement. In addition, last week Garamendi introduced the SAFE DRONE Act of 2015 (H.R. 3669), which would put restrictions on where UAS can operate, enforceable by jail time.

A full video of the hearing and full opening statements can be read here.

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