In what was neither a win for Congress nor the FAA on Wednesday, the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee called in aviation experts for a hearing on Wednesday to discuss the FAA’s lack of progress. In the face of the increasing popularity of drones, especially with the holiday season around the corner, the committee voiced concern that the FAA has done nothing to curtail the potential risk of having so many drones in our airspace.
The panel before the committee included President of the Air Line Pilots Association Tim Canoll, Director of the Academy of Model Aeronautics Rich Hanson, Professor Mykel Kochenderfer of Stanford University, and the FAA’s Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker.
That is a solid lineup but it didn’t make the hearing any less frustrating to watch.
Don’t get me wrong, it was clear everyone present wants to ensure safe skies but none of the parties involved seemed to agree on how exactly this goal could be accomplished.
In fact, agreement was in short supply.
This point came to a head when Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) went on Amazon on his phone and said he could purchase Amazon’s “Best Selling UAV” for $45.90.
“But it has a shipping weight is 1.1 pound and it has a range of 50 meters. You’re surely not saying this should be registered?”, he posed to Mr. Canoll.
First of all, Rep. Farenthold is right. This product is a remote control helicopter, a toy meant for children. It is so far from a drone or a UAV, it would be like called a go-cart a sports car.
Secondly, this loaded question is emblematic of the lack of definition for the term “UAV” or “drone.”
This point that was brought up early by Mr. Canoll was the number of ‘near misses’ between drones and airliners. Mr Canoll sited an FAA report that says these sightings number in the hundreds.
“Non-commercial and recreational UAS operations appear to be the primary source…” of these so-called close encounters.
He went on to elaborate on how these drones appear to airline pilots “literally out of the blue” because they can be difficult to see.
But Mr. Hanson rebutted this claim in his opening statement saying because these objects are so difficult to see and details of the objects in these reported sightings are so thin, there is no evidence to suggest these instances were actual sightings of unmanned aerial systems. The report may say ‘drone’ but at this point, the use of this language could very well be a self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of the pilots.
But then when the representatives went to reference these numbers, each representative chose the language that best suited their point rather than acknowledge the lack of clarity on the issue.
There were, however, two points that everyone seemed to agree on:
For one, wherever the line is drawn between drones and toys, drones should have some kind of registration.
“Most times when you buy a piece of technology these days, even if you buy a toaster, you register your product online for warranty purposes. People do this all the time,” said Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Washington). So why can’t this be mandated for drone manufacturers?
Finally, onboard technology hardcoded into the drones, such as altitude limits and geofencing could “significantly reduce” the safety risks as Professor Kochenderfer succinctly summed up.
And while most of the representatives eagerly jumped on this idea of geofencing, none of them seemed to understand this technology doesn’t exist quite yet.
“Implementing geofencing is more difficult (than altitude limits) because it relies on an up-to-date database of geofenced locations and accurate GPS locations,” Kochenderfer explained leaving the implication hanging that such a database does not yet exist.
Incidentally, NASA is working on such a project, and as Mr. Whitaker said, the FAA is working with private industry on this issue. But it is not going to be an overnight fix.
You can watch the hearing in its entirety embedded below.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com