FAA Chief Testifies at Senate Subcommittee Hearing on UAVs

DroneWire  |  October 28, 2015
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Federal Aviation Administration head Michael Huerta testified before a congressional subcommittee today on his agency’s progress toward integrating unmanned aircraft into the nation’s airspace.

The Senate Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing & Urban Development heard statements from Huerta as well as Marty Rogers, Deputy Director of ASSURE UAS, and Captain Tim Canoll, President of the Airline Pilots Association International.

In a seemingly unremarkable display of harmonious discourse, committee members questioned the panel for nearly an hour on issues ranging from regulating drone manufacturers and operators, to the use of transponders, and the FAA’s progress toward developing UAV policy.

Captain Canoll brought a DJI Phantom 2 drone to the hearing to use as a visual aid while he explained that it could be “flown to 7,000 feet” and remarked that “This is an extremely difficult thing to see, even at close range.” The FAA has cited “soaring instances” of drone sightings by commercial pilots in their push to implement sweeping regulations.

Subcommittee Chairman Susan Collins (R-ME) questioned Huerta on the difficulty of finding drone owners following an incident where a device is recovered. Huerta referred to the FAA’s new drone registration program and offered “We recognize it’s not the total solution,” and that the system is expected to “create a culture of accountability that among unmanned aircraft enthusiasts, it becomes well known, that if you are to fly these aircraft safely, you to have to take the appropriate steps such as registration.”

When asked by Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS), Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, if the FAA was making progress on the development of a regulatory framework, Huerta offered “[the drone industry] has been characterized by some as a Wright brothers moment in aviation of our generation, it’s a technology that shows huge potential, and it’s evolving at the speed of one’s imagination,” and “government regulation by its very nature has always been intended to be a slow and deliberative process to consider a full scope of interests.”

Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) opened her questioning by saying “I do not share in your excitement over the drone,” and “we see dramatic harm that can be done by drones,” before submitting letters from a half-dozen organizations that outlined problems caused by UAV activity. Feinstein told Huerta she would like the FAA to regulate drone manufacturing by requiring that safeguards, like geofencing, are included, and that she “hopes the industry is not going to fight” drone regulation.

When asked by Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) whether the FAA needed more regulatory powers to enforce maintenance or training standards, Huerta offered the following on his agency’s Section 333 Exemption program “Current law requires that if anyone is carrying out any aviation service for hire, there are two requirements that need to be met. A certified pilot, and a certified aircraft. And that is where the commercial guideline comes in. That is exactly the exemption we offer under section 333. So if an individual applies under section 333 to conduct a commercial operation, the secretary was granted by congress the ability to issue waivers, that effectively exempt them from those two activities.”

Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) pressed the FAA administrator, saying he had heard from Montana business owners who told him FAA approval delays are impeding drone industry development, and asked Huerta “what is the FAA doing to process these smaller commercial requests in a timely manner?” Huerta replied that the “registration process the secretary and I announced last week would really be a straightforward and simplified process.”

The FAA estimates that approximately one-third of the agency’s 357,000 aircraft registration records are inaccurate, causing some to question how the agency plans to effectively track over a million business and consumer drones.

We asked Christopher Vo, Chief Scientist for Sentien Robotics and President of the DC Area Drone User Group, if Captain Canoll's DJI Phantom 2 drone could indeed fly to an altitude of 7,000 feet. Vo maintained that, theoretically, the craft should be capable of such heights given ascent rate and battery life. “Most RC radios in 2.4Ghz have a maximum operating range of about 1000m (3280ft). I doubt the stock radio can break 1000m range,” said Vo.

Vo also noted that DJI had added some altitude restrictions to most of their UAV platforms, including the Phantom 2, and offered “the world of flying devices is vast, and capabilities of drones are improving quickly. A technology-based solution is not likely to be a lasting solution. Promoting safety in the airspace is going to come down to education - encouraging people who use and operate drones to learn and understand the risks, liabilities, and responsibilities.”

No subcommittee members mentioned the FAA’s failure to meet the congressionally mandated deadline, on September 30, for development of a unmanned aerial systems integration plan. Complete video coverage of the hearing and downloadable statements from all three witnesses is available here.

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