There were two recent hearings in Congress that I wanted to summarize. I also have exciting news: I will be speaking at Team Delaware International Drone Day.
On March 24th, the US Senate Science, Commerce, and Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security held a hearing entitled “Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Key Considerations Regarding Safety, Innovation, Economic Impact, and Privacy.” I’ll highlight the key aspects of the hearing below, but a recorded webcast and other testimony is available on the Subcommittee’s webpage.
- The American Farm Bureau Federation spoke in favor of UAS and discussed how UAS are a relatively low cost tool that can aid in precision agriculture and can detect nutrient shortages, weeds, and insect infestations. (I’ve written about this multiple times, so search the blog for “agriculture” and you’ll find a number of stories).
- Amazon’s testimony was well-reported in the news for a number of reasons. They talked about how they are testing abroad with minimal regulatory oversight, and foreign regulators have given them permission to fly a “category” of UAS. This is important for Amazon, which is evolving its technology quicker than the FAA can act. For example, Amazon was granted an Experimental Use Certificate last week. Unfortunately Experimental Use Certificates are aircraft specific, and Amazon doesn’t even fly that aircraft anymore – they’ve moved on. They also addressed the lack of a Beyond Line of Sight provision in the proposed regulations.
- I was also very interested in the testimony from John Villasenor of the Brookings Institution. He believes that the existing legal framework already provides more protection against privacy issues than most recognize. I firmly agree and think it is premature to pass laws that single out UAS. As he points out, it is inevitable that UAS will be used it invade privacy, but that is just statistics. People use telescopes to invade privacy, but we don’t single them out!
- He also thinks that we need to rethink the 500′ navigable airspace “rule.” I have an article pending publication that discusses this topic, but manned aircraft can fly below 500′ to take-off/land and helicopters can fly below that altitude as well. He quotes an article by Dr. McNeal, which states that we don’t want to create a fixed zone of airspace for UAS, because that could effect private trespass rights. This concept is fleshed out in United States v. Causby and later cases that interpret it. However, the courts have not delineated any particular altitude. Now that we have UAS, which tend to operate at lower altitudes, he argues we need to figure out a new way to approach airspace rights and regulation. We need to do this sooner rather than later, as evidenced by the Anti Drone and the No Fly Zone webpage.
The week prior, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency held a hearing entitled “Unmanned Aerial System Threats: Exploring Security Implications and Mitigation Technologies.” As with the Senate hearing, you can go to the link for the webcast and testimony.
I want to address one of the witnesses, Dr. Gregory McNeal, of whom I am a big fan and written previously (he broke the NPRM story). He asked that decision makers consider not only the probability of an attack but also the losses that could be sustained. He pointed to studies that indicate that UAS do not have significant advantages over other methods of attack.
For example, everyone is concerned about the Phantom that crashed on the White House lawn. Phantoms are easy to obtain, but lightweight explosives are not. Therefore the risk is high, but the losses would be incredibly low due to the payload limit of the Phantom in relation to traditional explosives. On the other hand, one could theoretically obtain lightweight C4, the necessary electronics to detonate it, and a UAS large enough to deliver the explosive. But the changes of one obtaining all of these components is pretty low.
Dr. McNeal suggests that the government have dedicated resources at the Department of Homeland Security who would do these risk analyses instead of leaving it to individual entities to do on an ad hoc basis, if at all. I hope his suggestions hit home – not just with politicians but with the public as well.
Finally, Congress is starting to do more than listen at hearings. Reports indicate that Senator Cory Booker intends to introduce temporary legislation that would implement temporary commercial drone regulations, until the FAA finishes the NPRM process.