Drones were the topic of discussion before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee Wednesday, Oct. 7, as officials and experts grappled with regulations, best practices and solutions for ending dangerous encounters between the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and passenger aircraft — the occurrences of which are growing.
While subcommittee members noted the need to promote safe uses of the devices through regulation, they also stressed the importance of not damaging the viable industry or the usefulness of drones for other purposes.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) statistics cited during the hearing, which lasted more than two hours, more than 600 drones were reported by commercial pilots in 2015. These numbers are up from 238 sightings in 2014.
Michael Whitaker, deputy administrator for the FAA, testified that there was a correlation between the increase in pilot UAS sightings and the technology coming into the hands of people who are not familiar with aviation culture.
“This demand is driven in large part by individuals who are completely new to the aviation experience,” he said, adding that the FAA is partnering with industry stakeholders to better educate the public through programs like the Know Before You Fly campaign.
While the deputy administrator noted concerns centered on aviation safety, he also said the agency needs to be “flexible and nimble” when it comes developing regulation and keeping pace with the evolving technology.
Tim Canoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said drones pose a credible threat to the safety of aircraft and add a another element to the “risk chain” that pilots face while flying. Canoll explained that things like weather, instrument malfunctions and other unpredictable occurrences are all risks, but he said the misuse of drones adds an unnecessary layer of risk.
“[Drones] do have batteries in them. These are dense metal pieces that will wreak havoc on an aircraft,” he said. “When it hits a transport category aircraft, when it hits one, there is going to be a significant event.”
A representative from the United States Forest Service also testified at the hearing about incidents between firefighting aircraft and UASs. While Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry James Hubbard said close encounters are not to the same scale as passenger aircraft, the frequency of incidents was enough to prompt concern within his agency.
“Our challenge is incursions. I wouldn’t say that our statistics are significant compared to everybody else’s, but the trend is a little worrisome,” he said in his testimony.
According to Hubbard, fire crews in 2015 saw 21 drone incursions in firefighting airspace, up from only 2 incursions in 2014. Of the 2015 encounters, 12 of them grounded aircraft until the drones were removed from the area.
Because of the low operating elevation of airtankers, Hubbard said UASs pose a real threat to firefighting crews and fire operations in general.
“Our risks are significant, I believe, if something were to happing in the air with a drone and our aircraft,” he said.
To this point, rules in place to keep hobbyists out of restricted airspace have been hampered by the inability to reliably locate operators at the time of a violation.
“One of the challenges with this issue is actually locating the UAS operators. It is less of a question of authority or magnitude of penalties as it is actually locating the operators,” Whitaker said.
As to how to stem the tide of problem occurrences, experts pointed to a number of possible solutions, but could not align themselves as to a singular solution.
The suggestion of registering UASs was made, but Whitaker said there were substantial barriers to successfully implementing a drone registration program.
While establishing an FAA drone database would not be outside of the realm of possibility, Whitaker said the process of verifying the identities of purchasers would need to be addressed before the option would be viable.
Other suggestions included reliance on community-based rules, similar to those used by the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), the implementation of “geo-fencing” and manufacturer-implemented operating systems that would limit drone capabilities.
The FAA announced Wednesday that it would be participating in a pilot program to detect UASs in the vicinity of airports. Whitaker said the airport test sites have not yet been selected.
Experts from AMA and Stanford University also testified at the hearing.