What body of government should define the level of Safety and Privacy Standards for UAVs?

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Article:Lagging Drone Safety Called No Reason to Slow Rollout

The US Senate held a hearing on the regulating of drones. It is clear that this is a burgeoning industry. There are manufacturers of these aircraft, operators who will offer to fly the UAVs for a variety of missions, pilots ready to sit on the ground and fly the UAVs and a long list of users who have a myriad of visions for these unique aircraft.

This was a well-orchestrated hearing. Members had their views put on the record. Senator Feinstein testified as a witness on a panel and said “These are questions that demand answers.” The quote does not make it clear who was supposed to answer—the Congress or the FAA?

Administrator Huerta made it clear that UAVs are “different”. He added:

“Realistically, neither the technical nor operational capabilities necessary exist today to implement the opportunities described by visionaries, but their promises for 21st century conveniences are compelling.”

The fact that UAVs are different is not an unusual circumstance in aviation. The standards for air carriers (Part 121, 135) are different from General Aviation (Part 91); the rules for certification of smaller aircraft are different (Part 23) from large commercial aircraft (Part 25). The Federal Aviation Regulations can accommodate differences in the level of regulation. The above distinctions are well known to the Congress and have shown to involve reliable variances.

Another major witness, an academic and a pilot, Mary Cummings, director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Laboratory, suggested that despite a lesser safety record, UAVs should not be cited by the FAA as a reason to hold back the expansion of this new segment of industry. She asserts that the machine is likely a better pilot than she is. That view ignores that these vehicles will be operating with other UAVs and other aircraft.

The Senators both spoke to and heard testimony on the issue of UAVs and privacy.

The early history of a new aircraft (e.g. the L-1011) and of a new industry will have major impact on the future of the business model. The decision of what risk profile should be assigned to UAVs is the proper subject of political debate. Yesterday’s hearing is a point along a dialogue which will/should define the parameters acceptable to the public for UAV’s certification and operation. The Administrator has defined a roadmap for the examination of the technical issues.

While we wait for the results which will be produced by those tests, this dialogue should continue. If it is determined that a lesser safety standard should be applied to UAVs, Congress (not the FAA) should author such a rule. Even more so, the privacy standards would be better set by the legislature; the issues involved in that policy call are not among those with which the FAA has great familiarity.

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