Senate Hearing Examines Drone Aircraft Safety

March 26, 2015

The Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security met yesterday for a hearing to “examine broadly the potential beneficial uses for unmanned aircraft systems and the efforts of the Federal Aviation on safe integration of UAS in the National Airspace System,” as well as to explore privacy concerns. Witnesses included governmental representatives, as well academic and industry representatives.

This hearing occurred as the FAA released a new ruling that would streamline the exemption application process for commercial drone usage. Under the preexisting rule, operators could apply for an exemption to operate a drone in a specific airspace. Now, when an operator receives an exemption they may operate the approved drone in any U.S. airspace as long as the drone is operated below 200 feet and avoids airports.

Subcommittee chairman Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) opened the hearing by noting that “for years, unmanned aircraft systems, UAS, sometimes more popularly called drones, have been identified with fighting terrorism abroad… today’s hearing is not about that… today’s hearing is about the commercial, recreational, and public use of technology that holds much promise.” She warned that Congress “cannot sacrifice safety, privacy, or prudent use.”

Margaret Gilligan, Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety at the Federal Aviation Administration, said “this technology introduces new risks into the aviation system.” She reminded the subcommittee that last month FAA proposed a new rule for small drone airplane systems (see ETW’s summary here:).

John Morris of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration noted “NTIA is contributing to the Administration’s efforts by convening stakeholders to develop best practices that can enhance privacy, transparency, and accountability in the operation of the UAS, thereby facilitating the adoption of this innovative technology platform in the most responsible and efficient manner possible.”

Gerald Dillingham of the U.S. Government Accountability Office discussed a GAO report from December 2014. According to Dillingham’s written testimony, “GAO studied the UAS regulations in Australia, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom and found these countries have similar rules and restrictions on commercial UAS operations, such as allowing line of sight operations only.” He noted that going forward FAA should maintain the same safety standards and develop a detailed integration plan.

Representing the academic and think-tank community, Prof. John Villasenor, non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, testified. He commented that, “the majority of the time people will be mindful… but statistics make it inevitable that at some point UAS will be used in ways that violate privacy.” He also commented that some are worried that the Fourth Constitutional Amendment (the amendment that prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and requires warrants to have probable cause) will not aide in privacy concerns associated with UASs. But, in rebuttal to that concern Villasenor cited four Supreme Court cases that suggest that the Fourth Amendment would stand up in UAS-related situations.

Paul Misener, Vice President of Global Policy for Amazon Inc., opened describing Amazon Prima Air, “a future service that will deliver packages to customers in 30 minutes or less using small UAS. Flying below 500 feet, and generally above 200 feet except for takeoff and landing, and weighing less than 55 pounds total, Prime Air UAS will take advantage of sophisticated “sense and avoid” technology, as well as a high degree of automation, to ensure safe operations including at distances of 10 miles or more, well beyond the visual line of sight.” He also noted that Amazon’s drone that has been approved by the FAA has become obsolete.

Jeff VanderWeff, representing the American Farm Bureau Federation, championed that UAS could allow the agriculture industry to optimize productivity and operations, but warned that there were privacy concerns, especially in regards to the Environmental Protection Agency and other environmental groups.

Sen. Ayotte began questioning, asking Gilligan how the FAA planned on funding this effort. Gilligan responded that the FAA has thus far absorbed a lot of the cost, and that while there are some user fees (these user fees are negligible at best, and include the cost of a pilot’s license and $5 to register the drone itself), they are used to offset the costs of particular elements and are not to cover costs.

Questioned on the requirement that UAS must operate within the line of sight of a human operator, Gilligan said, “we are working or focusing on that area to authorize operations further than the line of sight. We need to address the issue of “sense and avoid.” She also noted that this was a technology issue.

In response to Dillingham’s testimony, as well as Misener’s suggestion that gaining approval in other countries to operate UAS was a much more expedient process, the subcommittee was concerned with keeping pace with the United States’ competitors. Misener noted that “we are on par when these rules get adopted for operations… it’s planning for the future…Europeans are getting ready for it… us, not so much.”

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) asked who had jurisdiction over the airspace closer to the ground. Villasenor commented that, “if we try to pick a specific limit then you kinda invite people to sit right on that limit.”

Regarding agriculture, VanderWeff mentioned that his industry is most excited about the possibilities that UAS offer grain farmers. The ability to fly over a field and determine where plant stress is, instead of having to walk or treat an entire field, could be extremely useful and provide both financial and environmental benefits. He did note, however that the light of sight rule does complicate the use of UAS.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) emphasized that the general problems with privacy or misuse are the result of private users and that commercial users should not be hindered because of private use. He also said, “I am a little bit upset because when it comes to government [trying to move] at the speed of innovation… we are being left behind.” Misener reemphasized that things are getting better in respect to testing, but that FAA is struggling to plan for the future. Booker jokingly responded, “okay, let the record show that you have sufficiently sucked up to the FAA.”

A full video of this hearing can be found here.


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