A Parrot on Capitol Hill

I’ll begin with something light and exciting before getting to Congress: Aurora reported that its UAS, the Orion, has broken the world record for longest flight by a UAS.  It flew non-stop for 80 hours in December over a US Air Force site in California and shattered the Global Hawk’s 30.4 hour record.  Not only does Aurora get bragging rights, but it has met the requirements of its contract with the US Government.

OrionOrion 2




Yesterday, January 21, 2015, the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology met to discuss UAS Research and Development.  The purpose of the Committee was to look into R&D developments at the FAA and NASA. Don’t be surprised by NASA’s involvement; contrary to popular belief, but as the name implies, NASA has an Aeronautical function as well.  However, the FAA representative received most of the attention attention because of the FAA’s slow progress in developing rules for UAS, as discussed in previous posts.  I won’t go into painstaking detail regarding the hearing, but will summarize some of the key points.  The witnesses, prepared testimony, and saved video of the hearing, are all available at the link above.

  • The headline grabbing news was that a Parrot Bebop was flown not once, but twice, in the hearing room.  Apparently there are strict rules on this topic (by Congress, since it was indoors the FAA didn’t have a say), but it amazed a number of the Congressmen.  A minor crash also served as a good training moment to show what it means to crash and what precautions users must take – which this user had.
  • The FAA refused to answer the same question posed multiple times regarding their plan to use proposed rules for small UAS.  The FAA refused to even give a target date, but only said they want to get out comprehensive and safe regulations. The industry believes that we are in a “chicken and egg” situation because one cannot address all safety issues until UAS start flying in the NAS and we learn from experience.  They believe we should start with small UAS, which pose low risk to safety, and feed those lessons into improved regulations for small UAS and regulations for larger UAS.  Some UAS are being equipped with a feature that allows the flight data to be uploaded to a central repository for R&D purposes in order to show that industry is serious about using flight data to develop better regs.  Industry also pointed out that small UAS regulations (small in generally defined as a UAS with a mass less than 2 kg) have been successfully implemented in other countries.
  • Design standards require airplanes to withstand a bird strike.  A manned aircraft will almost certainly service a mid air collision with a small UAS under 2 kg.
  • The test sites received a lot of attention.  Industry witnesses were concerned because the sites are underutilized, expensive to use, and logistically and bureaucratically difficult to access.  The FAA states that they cannot task the sites without funding the request, but has issued a list of items they would like to see come out of the test sites.  This has clarified, but not solved the issue relating to obtaining useable research data from the sites.
  • Industry also believes that the test site system poses serious barriers of entry to small business and does not account for real-life situations.  The sponsoring states pay for the sites and get reimbursement through use fees, but since there are so few users, the cost to use them are high – again a chicken and egg situation.  Industry has noted this is a large reason why R&D is moving to Canada and Mexico, where it is less expensive and more easily accessed.
  • Industry would prefer to use company owned land for research, and the FAA reminded everyone that one can still apply for an Experimental Use Certificate. However, that can be a long and arduous process.
  • The FAA summarized some of 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 various stages (such as a comment period).
    • The FAA has two employees working full-time to facilitate approval for public entities to fly UAS, and to date over 700 COAs have been issued to public entities.
    • Two entities in Alaska (AeroVironment for their Puma and Insitu for their Scan Eagle) have went through the standard aircraft certification process, including commercial certification of the pilots, to inspect BP pipelines. The aircraft are operating under restricted category “type certificates.”
    • They clarified for the Committee that the 333 Exemption process is merely to certify the specific aircraft, since type certifications are not available.  Parties must still request a COA from Air Traffic Control for the specific operations.  This is important, since a lot of news reports imply that the 333 Exemption is the end of the runway, so to speak.
  • One of the major and often discussed barriers is the see-and-avoid issue.  NASA has been performing significant research in this area and has been working to determine how information from onboard sensors to UAS pilots
  • Concepts of Operation (ConOps) is the name for the ways in which UAS will be integrated into the NAS with manned aircraft.  The FAA believes they are making good progress on this point, but industry does not agree.
  • One estimate is that about 80% of UAS use will be for agricultural (rural) purposes.
  • Incredibly, the FAA does not believe the US is lagging behind other countries in UAS development.  They state that our airspace is the most complex in the world and must be studied more carefully to safely integrate UAS into the NAS.  As you might expect, industry did not agree.

I’ll start and finish on a light note.  The user is on the far right is holding his cell phone to operate the red Bebop ($499), which is in front of the closest witness.

Bebop at hearing

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