A UAS on Capitol Hill: Cleared for Takeoff?
On January 21, 2015 the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology's Subcommittee on Space met to discuss UAS Research and Development (R&D). The purpose of the Subcommittee was to look into R&D developments at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA was present in conjunction with its lesser known Aeronautical function, but it was the FAA that received most of the attention, particularly regarding its slow rulemaking for Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS).
The headline grabbing news was that a Parrot Bebop, a readily available $499 UAS, was flown not once, but twice, in the hearing room. The Chairman had quipped that the Bebop should fly over his head, but a minor crash changed his mind and provided an educational moment regarding the safety considerations one must take when using a UAS. The FAA did not have a say in the flight since they do not regulate indoor use of UAS, but the Subcommittee was pushing the comfort level of some lawmakers with the demonstration.
The FAA was asked many times about its plans to issue a small UAS rule. The witness refused to give even a target date, saying only that the FAA wanted to issue comprehensive and safe regulations. Many in the UAS industry believe this presents a "chicken and egg" situation because the full range of safety issues can't be addressed until UAS start flying; that the FAA should allow small UAS to fly, since they pose a low risk to safety, and learn from that experience. In order to strengthen this argument, some UAS manufacturers are equipping their products with a feature that allows flight data to be uploaded to a central repository. This data can then be analyzed by researchers and used to propose flight rules.
Representatives from the UAS industry also pointed out that the concerns with small UAS are negligible compared to larger UAS or manned aircraft. The biggest safety concern with small UAS is a mid-air collision with a manned aircraft. However, airplanes are designed to withstand a bird strike, and UAS weighing less than 2 kg would be within these design standards. Regulations for aircraft less than 2 kg have been implemented in other countries to successfully integrate small UAS into the their airspace and to use lessons from that integration to refine rules.
The six statutorily required test sites approved by the FAA received significant attention. They were selected by the FAA because of their varying characteristics and, in conjunction with industry, will conduct research into the requirements necessary to integrate UAS into the National Airspace System ("NAS"). Industry witnesses were concerned because the sites are underutilized, expensive to use, and difficult to access. The sponsoring states pay for the sites and are reimbursed through user fees, but since there are so few users, the cost to use them are high. The industry has noted this is a large reason why R&D is moving to Canada and Mexico.
The sites lack a defined mission, as discussed in "FAA Testifies To Congress: More UAS Delays" (12/16/2014). The FAA cannot directly task the test sites without funding the request due to Federal procurement regulations, but last fall the FAA sent the sites a list of topics they would like researched. Regardless, without funding the sites are reliant on non-federal users for work-product. The industry believes that the test site system poses serious barriers of entry to smaller businesses and does not provide comprehensive data for integrating UAS into the NAS. The industry would prefer to test UAS on a dedicated portion of company property, but receiving an Experimental Use Certificate to do so can also be a lengthy process.
The FAA summarized their progress in getting UAS into the sky. They are trying to speed up the 333 Exemption process, but noted that it is still a regulatory process that must go through multiple stages. This includes allowing for public comment, which has been utilized on every 333 Exemption issued. The FAA has two employees working full-time to facilitate approval for public entities to fly UAS through a separate process and over 700 COAs have been issued to public entities. Furthermore, two entities in Alaska have gone through the standard aircraft certification process, including commercial certification of the pilots, to inspect oil pipelines. The aircraft are operating under restricted category "type certificates."
There are operational issues that need further R&D to be implemented on a large scale. One of the major and often discussed barriers is the sense-and-avoid requirement for aircraft. The FAA's position is that sense-and-avoid requires a human on board the aircraft, effectively making it impossible for UAS to comply with airworthiness requirements without a waiver. NASA has been performing significant research in this area and has been working to determine how to present information obtained from onboard sensors to UAS pilots.
UAS will be a noticeable part of the economy once authorized for use in the NAS. A recent study has found that UAS markets in the U.S. are predicted to increase from $0.6 billion in 2014 to $4.8 billion in 2021. One of the Representatives from the mid-west was told that approximately 80% of UAS are expected to be used for agricultural purposes to perform dangerous pesticide operations and to otherwise optimize cultivation. On a less positive note, a UAS crashed recently outside of San Diego near the Mexican border carrying over 6 pounds of methamphetamine.