Great expectations preceded a House hearing on UAS this week, but no clear statement of change to Congressional intent from the FAA Modernization and Reform Act’s parameters was articulated there. Those who have been asserting that the FAA’s approach under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act was so bad as to be a violation of that legislation were disappointed by this exchange between the legislators and the Executive Branch.
There is no more divisive, controversial and commanding issue in aviation than the UAS. Critics have been most vocal. Their theme has been that the FAA, by being deliberative or slow, is damaging the growth of this industry in the US. At the same time, there are multiple press reports, around the globe, of UAS and near mid-air misses. In that context, the Aviation Subcommittee held a hearing on December 10 on this subject. It was an opportunity for this important legislative group to give feedback to the FAA about their progress. Every Member who expressed an opinion that the UAS rulemakings, Section 333, CoA and test site processes should go faster, including the Chairman of the full Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, BUT each of such statements included some reference to “safety first”.
Chairman LoBiondo established the hearing’s tone with his opening statement. It was clear that recent Washington Post and Wall Street Journal articles about UASs operating near commercial flights impacted his comments to the FAA.
The selection of the panel of witnesses is a telling mark of what the Subcommittee thinks and/or wants to hear. The six experts who testified represented a range of views. Here are links to each of their views plus précises of their statements and their answers to questions:
· Ms. Peggy Gilligan , Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety, Federal Aviation Administration; Written Testimony – She admitted that the FAA has been slow in moving both of the NPRMs and said that the sUAS final draft is at under “Executive Review” (code for OMB’s OIRA). She also announced 5 more grants of Section 333 exemptions. The test sites now, she opined, have all of the authority and agendas to be fully operational. Another bit of news was that the FAA has granted DAR authority to one of the Nevada Test Site team and is welcoming requests for this ability from others. She was asked about the FAA’s willingness/ability to fund the test sites and indicated that the lawyers have indicated there is an anti-deficiency act problem. Member Farenthold posited that there is a “cat out of the bag” problem, i.e. the thousands of sUAS that are regarded as toys but that can reach 6,000’ in altitude. His specific question was how can the FAA identify these potentially rogue operators. Ms. Gilligan responded that the FAA and the manufacturers are engaged in an education program.
· Mr. Matthew Hampton, Assistant Inspector General for Aviation Audits, Department of Transportation; Written Testimony. The IG’s office was the most critical of the FAA. The primary themes was on management; failure to control the NPRM process adequately (for example, the IG pointed out that when/if the large UAS NPRN is issued late in 2015, literally thousands a comments will be received requiring year(s) to process) and manage the future challenges (i.e., the preparation of communication systems/procedures between ATC and individual UAS is inadequate).
· Dr. Gerald Dillingham, Director of Civil Aviation Issues, Government Accountability Office; Written Testimony. His comments were also negative, but perhaps a little more balanced. His comments recognized the complexity of the issues and the difficulty of moving forward while the technology is evolving.
· Captain Lee Moak, President, Air Line Pilots Association; Written Testimony Captain Moak’s testimony was almost solely focused on safety. To illustrate his point, the ALPA president bought a sUAS and brought it to the hearing (see above). He referenced the repeated reports of UASs incursion into airspace. He worries about the UAS failure mode; when the aircraft loses its signal, what are the safety ramifications? He strongly asserted that all UASs must be capable of being seen by controllers and pilots. These “targets” are sufficiently small that they will not be detected by radar and that any pilot may not see. The technology of “see and avoid” must be developed and even small ADS-B units incorporated. The requirement that UAS pilots must have licenses was beyond debate to him. Finally he made it clear that FAA funding must be adequate to provide the resources and research needed to regulate this expanding segment. Rep. Esty made mention that there should be registration of sUAS and large vehicles; she also indicated that she would support a “fee” to pay for the regulatory personnel and programs for this industry.
· Mr. Jesse Kallman, Head of Business Development and Regulatory Affairs, Airware; Written Testimony This former FAA employee was the champion of the theme that technology will fix many of the concerns. He said that there are 3 major concerns from his perspective (i) technology status, (ii) risk-based approach and (iii) impact. He was confident that the “sense and avoid” system will be a reality soon. He countered Capt. Moak’s concern with the present capabilities of geo fencing and safe landing upon failure mode programs which are available now. He somewhat recognized that the FAA is using the risk-based approach and Ms. Gilligan, in response to a question, listed all of the UAS projects which are using this technique, now. He said categorically that the FAA’s cautious or go slow approach is negatively impacting US growth.
· Dr. Nicholas Roy MIT professor of aeronautics; Written Testimony. The Doctor is returning to MIT after a sabbatical with Google; so he spoke with considerable competence. He, however, spoke for neither. The FAA is more difficult as a regulatory body than others around the world, but he also stated that the task for dealing with so many UASs, so many GA and commercial aircraft and such vast airspace is more challenging. The FAA should focus on the sUAS because the large aircraft has so much experience on which to base the rules. While he concurred that technology is providing some of the solutions to the safety issues, there needs to be more R&D dollars allocated. Most of the technology advances are found in Apple-like garage incubators. The biggest point made by Dr. Roy was that the FAA should create standards for test sites and not burden the process. These are the labs for UASs. The last message was that we need more engineers to develop this technology and he closed with an important conclusion “the US is not lagging”.
Thirteen Members asked questions and their command of the complex issues was exemplary. Clearly they have had a lot of preparation with their staffs and meetings with lobbyists. Almost none of the “libertarian”-like rhetoric of the various web oracles was adopted by the Members; no one said that expedition was their sole concern.
If one tried to encapsulate this continuum of testimony and of the Members’ questions/comments, it might be something like:
· Safety first
· Pick up the regulatory pace
· Technology is coming
· But the FAA regulation should not bet that the technology will be there to match the rules.
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