In the lead-up to a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) task force’s expected Saturday release of recommendations for drone registration rules, a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee held a hearing on Thursday examining the use of drones, discussing safety and privacy measures, and looking into ways that drones are benefiting consumers and businesses throughout the country.
The hearing, entitled “The Disrupter Series: The Fast-Evolving Uses and Economic Impacts of Drones,” included stakeholder testimony ranging from insightful and encouraging to downright concerning. In fact, one big-name company even warned it would relocate its drone operations outside the country if the federal government implements “overly prescriptive” unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) rules.
“Drones promise to make life easier, safer and less costly for workers in a wide array of industries,” said U.S. Rep. Michael C. Burgess, R-Texas, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade. “As regulators prepare to integrate drones into the airspace, it is clear that safety is the No. 1 priority. But cutting-edge drone testing and evaluation is occurring overseas because the current process to approve commercial drone use is both restrictive and cumbersome in the U.S.
“I join many in the drone development space in calling for quick but flexible regulatory solutions that allow for future innovation,” he continued. “The speed of innovation can’t remain at the speed of regulation for long.”
Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), testified before the subcommittee.
According to a AUVSI press release, Wynne said the FAA needs to complete the small UAS rule and assert its authority over the National Airspace System to avoid a “legal quagmire” as states move to ban or limit unmanned aircraft use.
“While my industry supports the safe, non-intrusive use of UAS technology, we’re concerned about creating inconsistencies with federal law,” Wynne told the subcommittee. “Only the FAA can regulate airspace: States and municipalities cannot.”
He said in the absence of FAA action, states may create “questionable” laws that will tie up the courts and cost taxpayer money.
“It is critical for the federal government to assert its preemption authority over the National Airspace System,” he stated.
“As more commercial UAS operators are certified, they will join the long-standing aviation community, which I have been part of for the last 20 years as an instrument-rated general aviation pilot,” said Wynne. “They will foster the aviation community’s principles of airmanship and self-policing to promote safety and thwart careless and reckless operations.”
Asked during the question period if the FAA has mapped out an adequate roadmap for UAS integration, Wynne said yes, but with a caveat.
“We know what the work is that needs to be done,” he said. “I don’t think it’s properly funded today.”
He said the FAA’s new UAS Center of Excellence and the existing test sites can help prove out some of the technology that is required for full integration, including sense and avoid technology.
“The FAA has to direct that, and in some instances they need to be able to fund some of that – of course, with appropriate industry resources as well,” he said.
The AUVSI release also notes that Joshua M. Walden, senior vice president and general manager of Intel Corp.’s new technology group, demonstrated one way his company is contributing to that culture of safety.
According to AUVSI, Intel has developed what it calls the RealSense depth-sensing camera, a module that weighs only eight grams and is less than four millimeters thick, but gives a drone 360-degree awareness of what’s around it.
Walden demonstrated the system by flying a small prototype drone in the subcommittee hearing. During a voting recess, he further showcased the RealSense technology, as witnesses approaching the hovering UAS and tried to touch it, only to watch it move away from them.
“Intel has visited with [FAA] Administrator Heurta and FAA officials on a number of occasions to explain how Intel RealSense can enhance drone safety technology, and are pleased to assist in the ongoing efforts to reduce the near-miss rate of drones down to zero,” Walden said.
However, according to a Reuters report, Walden also warned that Intel might move its UAS research and development (R&D) business outside the U.S. if the feds take an “overly prescriptive” approach to UAS regulation.
Walden said such rules would “deter the private sector’s ability to invent and compete in the marketplace.”
“Worse,” he added, “it will drive us to relocate our business planning and R&D overseas, where we are being welcomed by foreign countries eager for investment in this new technology area.”
The UAS industry has been anxiously awaiting recommendations from a new task force ever since the FAA and U.S. Department of Transportation formally announced in October plans to require all UAS operators in the U.S. to register their aircraft before flying in national airspace.
In a new blog post, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta says that the task force will deliver its report to the agency on Saturday.
“We will consider their recommendations and the public comments as we develop an Interim Final Rule on registration, which will likely be released next month and go into effect shortly thereafter,” he writes. “This step will be followed by another opportunity for the public to comment as we move toward issuing a final rule on registration.”
Photos and video courtesy of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce