- Mr. Earl Lawrence, Director of the Office of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, Federal Aviation Administration
- Ms. Diana Marina Cooper, Vice President of Legal and Policy Affairs, Precision Hawk USA Inc.; President, sUAV Coalition
- Mr. Ben Fowke, Chairman, President and CEO, Xcel Energy
- Mr. Brendan Schulman, Vice President of Policy and Legal Affairs, DJI
- Dr. John Villasenor, Professor of Engineering and Public Policy, UCLA; Visiting Fellow, Hoover Institution
- Dr. Emilio Gonzalez, Director and Chief Executive Officer, Miami-Dade Aviation Department
Wednesday, March 15, 2017
The hearing will be held in Senate Dirksen Office Building, Room 106. Witness testimony, opening statements, and a live video of the hearing will be available on this page.
Chairman John Thune
Good Morning. Today we are here to discuss unmanned aircraft systems—a topic which received a lot of attention during last year’s FAA reauthorization debate.
This hearing will examine the successes and the challenges we face with respect to the continued integration of unmanned aircraft systems, often referred to as UAS or drones, into the national airspace system.
As all of you know, this exciting technology has the capability to change, and in some cases has already changed, the way many companies do business.
Obtaining an easily accessible aerial view via an off-the-shelf drone for realtors or photographers, and collecting even more advanced data for farmers, energy companies, or first responders are just a few examples of how UAS can increase safety, expand opportunities, and create significant efficiencies.
Innovators across the industry are continuing to find new ways to market services, solve technical problems, mitigate safety risks, and remain on the cutting edge of the future of this technology.
In addition to commercial activities, hundreds of thousands of drones have been sold and registered to hobbyists and recreational users around the country. Some of these users are long-time aviation enthusiasts while many others have been engaged by this new technology and are excited to take flight for the first time.
Drones have proven to be so popular, in fact, that the online registration system for small UAS, which went live in 2015, already has 750,000 unmanned registrations, compared to the roughly 315,000 registrations for manned aircraft.
While unmanned aircraft systems have been employed by the military for decades, integration of both commercial and recreational drones into the national airspace was first addressed in law by the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Since that time, we have come a long way in terms of adoption, research, technology, and public policy.
More recently, Congress was able to continue to exercise oversight and provide clear direction on the FAA’s integration efforts with the passage of the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016 last summer.
In an effort to increase safety and security, this legislation requires the Secretary of Transportation to establish a process for restricted airspace designations by the operators of critical infrastructure.
Given the experience gained by the FAA in granting exemptions provided for in the 2012 legislation, the 2016 bill expands FAA’s authority to allow UAS operations beyond visual line of sight and at night for applicants who demonstrate a solid safety case. As was the case in the development of the small UAS rule, I hope that use of the expanded authority will give both industry and the FAA confidence in the safety of such operations, which will eventually allow for even more routine use.
This legislation also included provisions requiring the development of remote identification standards that will enable individuals to identify an operator of a UAS. This ability is critical for FAA enforcement efforts and the ability of individuals to avail themselves of state and local laws that protect them from unwanted involvement with a UAS.
The original Senate-passed FAA bill included numerous other drone-related provisions that didn’t make it into the final extension. I anticipate that, as we work toward another FAA reauthorization this year, these issues will continue to be advanced by members of this Committee and the aviation community at large.
At the agency level, with the expansion of UAS technology, the FAA has had to reevaluate how it operates and how it engages with the aviation stakeholder community—a community that includes a new cohort of users who may be less familiar with the National Airspace System, but who can bring new talents to bear in addressing regulatory challenges and finding safety solutions.
Through the establishment of the UAS Integration Office, the FAA has begun to collaborate with the UAS industry, other government agencies, research partners, and Congress to aggressively pursue safe integration in a timely fashion.
And while integration hasn’t proceeded as fast as many would like, the FAA has taken steps to accelerate collaboration with the establishment of the Drone Advisory Committee and the Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team—both of which are government and industry partnerships.
In August of 2016, the FAA also finalized the long-awaited small UAS rule, which, for the first time, provided direction for the routine use of commercial drones. These regulations established clear “rules of the road” for certain operations and streamlined what was previously an onerous case-by-case approval process for operators.
In addition to the online UAS registration system for commercial and recreational users I previously mentioned, the FAA has also expanded education efforts, through initiatives such as the “Know Before You Fly” campaign, designed to provide important safety information to UAS users.
The FAA has also partnered with NASA on research and development of an unmanned traffic management system or “UTM.” This research may ultimately lead to a complementary system to today’s Air Traffic Organization for manned aircraft that will allow for drone fleet operations and package delivery.
And importantly, the industry, from manufacturers to software developers to practical users, continues to innovate.
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.
The same innovative energy that enables new uses for this technology is also driving advances in safety and accountability, often faster than the pace of regulations. That pace of innovation is a benefit we should protect as the regulatory framework matures.
As we contemplate another FAA authorization, today’s hearing is an opportunity to receive an update on the FAA’s progress in implementing the Congressional mandates from the 2012 and 2016 legislation. In particular, we will examine the successes and challenges the FAA has faced in the effort to safely integrate drones into the national airspace.
I am confident we can get there. It will likely take even more innovation and out-of-the-box thinking on the part of the agency and the industry, and maybe even on the part of this Committee—along with appropriate direction and oversight.
Thank you to all of the witnesses to being here today. I look forward to hearing your testimony.
Mr. Chairman, thank you for calling this hearing today.
I want to thank the witnesses for being here today – especially for braving the winter weather.
In the last several years, more and more individuals are purchasing unmanned aircraft systems - or “drones” - and registering them with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Drones for commercial use continue to hold great technological promise in many important areas – law enforcement, agriculture, disaster response, and perhaps even package delivery one day.
However, advances in technology also raise important questions concerning safety and security, and the growing commercial uses for drones are certainly no exception.
We’ve all read the headlines – a drone flying close to an aircraft or near an airport, used in smuggling contraband over a prison wall, or intruding on the personal property and privacy of neighbors.
I also remain concerned by the prospect of drones being usurped by terrorists to target critical infrastructure and Department of Defense sites around the country.
This senator is certainly eager to embrace the innovations and technological breakthroughs of U.S. companies and manufacturers – including the commercial use of drones.
But common sense dictates that we be mindful of the safety and security concerns associated with the integration of drones into our national airspace.
This is why I worked with Chairman Thune to ensure that last year’s FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act include several key provisions on these issues.
To address the growing number of drone sightings near airports and the risk of collision with aircraft, the FAA extension requires the FAA to establish a pilot program to test technologies to keep potentially wayward and hostile drones away from airports.
As we will hear from Dr. Emilio Gonzalez, who oversees operations at Miami International Airport and four general aviation airports in the Miami area, airports across the country have had to experience this growing danger, including in my home state of Florida.
The FAA extension also directs the FAA to work with NASA to develop a program for collision research involving drones and various types of aircraft.
In addition, the FAA Extension establishes civil penalties for those who use drones to knowingly or recklessly interfere with law enforcement, emergency response efforts, and fighting wildfires.
We didn’t stop there.
To better manage the number of drones flying across the country, the FAA extension directs the FAA and NASA to continue development of a research plan and ultimately establish a system for drone traffic management – or UTM.
Because authorities don’t always know who is flying a drone when security and safety incidents take place, the FAA extension now requires the FAA to convene industry stakeholders to develop standards for remotely identifying drone operators.
The Senate Commerce Committee continues to monitor FAA’s progress with these and other drone-related provisions in the FAA extension.
And as part of what I hope will be a long-term FAA reauthorization bill this year, Chairman Thune and I will continue to evaluate additional ways to safely integrate drones into the national airspace.
I look forward to hearing from the panel and especially thank Dr. Emilio Gonzalez for being here today from Miami.
Witness Panel 1
Mr. Earl LawrenceDirector of the Office of Unmanned Aircraft SystemsFederal Aviation Administration
Ms. Diana Marina CooperVice President of Legal and Policy Affairs, Precision Hawk USA IncPresident, sUAV Coalition
Mr. Ben FowkeChairman, President, and CEOXcel Energy
Dr. John VillasenorProfessor of Engineering and Public Policy, UCLAVisiting Fellow, Hoover Institution
Dr. Emilio GonzalezDirector and Chief Executive OfficerMiami-Dade Aviation Department
Mr. Brendan SchulmanVice President of Policy and Legal AffairsDJI