The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hosted the hearing, entitled “Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Innovation, Integration, Successes, and Challenges,” this morning.
Chairman Thune introduced the hearing, setting a positive tone towards speeding up drone integration and working toward incorporating supports for integration in the permanent FAA Reauthorization Bill. Thune also recognized industry’s significant role: “… importantly, the industry, from manufacturers to software developers to practical users, continues to innovate,” said Thune. “While there is no silver bullet, safety technologies, including geofencing, altitude limitations, and sense and avoid capabilities, have the ability to continue to improve the safe operations of unmanned aircraft—technological achievements which may someday be used to improve safety in manned aviation.”
Ranking member Bill Nelson agreed that the advance of technology could help, but his written statement set the tone of “safety first” by saying that while commercial drones hold “great technological promise,” they raise “important questions concerning safety and security.” In addition to mentioning reported near misses around airports, the Senator introduced the spectre of drones and terrorism, saying that he is “concerned by the prospect of drones being usurped by terrorists to target critical infrastructure and Department of Defense sites around the country.”
After hearing the testimony from witnesses including Earl Lawrence of the FAA, Diana Marina Cooper, VP of Legal and Policy Affairs at Precision Hawk
, Brendan Schulman
, VP of Policy and Legal Affairs at DJI
, and a representative from Nelson’s home state, the Director and Chief Executive Officer, Miami-Dade Aviation Department, Nelson continued to discuss the relationship between terrorism, drones and safety in question and answers. Nelson introduced the idea that not only terrorists but illegal immigrants might be able to enter the country by means of passenger drones
such as those that will be introduced as taxis in Dubai this summer.
Issues of state and local ordinances, drone privacy, drone delivery, agriculture and the use of drones in law enforcement and firefighting were also addressed. About state and local laws, both Schulman of DJI and Cooper of PrecisionHawk, members of the Drone Advisory Committee, commented on the need for a strong federal framework which would meet the needs of local governments also and stem the tide of new local regulations.
When a senator from Nevada asked what lawmakers could do to remove barriers for the drone industry, Mr. Schulman asked for consideration of a micro-drone category, something that Senators did introduce in earlier versions of the FAA Reauthorization packages last year.
FAA Representative Earl Lawrence promised that the FAA would meet it’s April deadline on UTM development. Asked if the US were behind other countries in drone delivery and other applications, Lawrence said that their focus was on integration rather than individual application – and in that arena, the US was leading the way.