House panel presses FAA to curtail drone dangers

As a new report warns small UAS can do far more damage to planes than bird strikes, legislators worry that "idiots who have toy drones" will delay legitimate UAS uses.

By Jag_cz Stock photo ID: 407468995 Drone flying near commercial airplane
 

As the number of small unmanned aerial systems continues to grow, legislators are pushing the Federal Aviation Administration to improve UAS safety without stalling commercial innovation.

"In September over New York, a U.S. Army helicopter collided with an illegally operated drone," Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), who chairs the House Transportation Committee's Aviation Subcommittee, said at a Nov. 29 hearing. That collision, he noted, caused "hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to that aircraft." 

Soon after, a drone struck an airliner as it prepared to land in Canada. "We were lucky," LoBiondo said. "No one was hurt or killed in those incidents. But we cannot count on luck to keep us safe the next time around. "

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said "the biggest problem so far is with idiots who have toy drones. … This an accident waiting to happen. We are going to lose an aircraft."

At the same time, DeFazio said, "commercial operations should not be held back because we've got these people out there operating these illegally." He expressed disbelief that geofencing -- built-in technology to prevent a UAS from operating near airports or other sensitive efforts -- is not required for all drones sold. And he called for faster deployment of remote detection and identification systems for UAS.

The FAA gets more than 250 sightings a month of potentially risky UAS flights -- often operating too close to airports.

Earl Lawrence, the executive director of the FAA's UAS Integration Office, told legislators "identification is now at the top of our priority." The technology for identifying drones in flight is evolving very quickly, he said, so the agency had taken care to solicit broad industry input. But with that information now gathered, the FAA is now "moving forward with our rule-making activity," he said.

Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), who chairs the full Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, asked if those rules would be out in within "a few months." Lawrence demurred, saying that "rule-making is a deliberative process."

Shuster said such slowness was a key part of the problem, and that remote identification of UAS was key to both law enforcement and public safety.

Brian Wynne, the president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, agreed. "We as an organization are against anonymous flying," he said at the hearing. "Aircraft need to be visible to one another so that we can avoid conflicts. … They need to be detecting one another, they need to be identifiable to one another, and they need to be responsible to one another."

The hearing came on the heels of the FAA's announcement of a new report that details the damage small UAS can cause to manned aircraft. That report, produced by the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (ASSURE), found that drones can cause more structural damage than birds of the same weight for a given impact speed. Manned aircraft are manufactured to withstand bird strikes, but the ASSURE researchers said that small drones pose a much greater risk because of their solid motors, batteries and other parts. 

FAA Deputy Administrator Daniel Elwell said the agency is working with drone makers to develop technology to detect and avoid planes. And he thanked Congress for reinstating the FAA's authority to require all UAS to be registered, noting that registration is prerequisite for effective identification and in-flight tracking.

The FAA's goal is to "integrate, not segregate" drones in the U.S. airspace, he said, and "remote ID and tracking will be a key component to full integration."

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