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House Subcommittee Peers Up at Drone Issues

Committee delves into the ways that drones are impacting consumers and job creators

WASHINGTON – Drones made an appearance, of sorts, on Capitol Hill when a House subcommittee attempted to delve into the way that drones are impacting consumers and job creators.

As the committee of jurisdiction over the public product safety commission, the House subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade discussed how drones should be adequately regulated. Of biggest concern: privacy rights. “With their capacity to reach secure areas, including the White House lawn, which happened earlier this year, drones can pose a serious national security threat,” said Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), a member of the subcommittee.

“It seems there are drones for just about everything,” said Frank Pallone (D-NJ), from farmers who are using them to oversee crop conditions to amateurs flying mini Millennium Falcons. Investments in drone technology for the first five months of this year equaled $172 million, more than the previous five years combined, Pallone said.

“So as more drones take to the air, safety becomes more of a concern,” he said.

While the subcommittee should be searching for ways to position the U.S. as a leader in drone technology development, subcommittee chairman Michael C. Burgess, M.D. (R-TX) said, there are, however, legitimate questions about how drones work, what technologies are being developed to ensure the public’s safety and privacy, and how drones could help businesses better serve consumers.”

According to John Villasenor, a professor at University of California, Los Angeles, who offered testimony at the hearing, unmanned aerial systems (UAS) have proliferated due to a combination of technology advances in airframe design, integrated circuits, wireless communications, and lightweight, small-form-factor imaging systems.

Due to these advances, he said, it’s possible to acquire newly capable platforms at lower costs, but it’s creating both opportunities and challenges, he said.

“Opportunities lie in the economically beneficial applications that UAS can enable,” he said. “The challenges lie in accessing those benefits while ensuring that UAS are operated safely and in a manner protecting privacy.”

In discussing UAS policy issues, it is helpful to keep in mind the variety of platforms involved, Villasenor said. A UAS can include everything from a small toy helicopter that might cost only $10 to a jet-powered Global Hawk, which can weigh 15,000 pounds and cost $100 million, he said.

A rep from Intel touted the importance of improving safety and promoting advances in drone technology, but said that a federal government approach that is “overly prescriptive” regarding the deployment of hardware and software will deter the private sector’s ability to invent and compete in the marketplace.

Worse, it will drive companies like Intel to relocate its business planning and R&D overseas, said Joshua Walden, senior vice president and general manager of the New Technology Group at Intel.

Walden also questioned current government regulations, noting a regulation that prohibits companies from demonstrating a small quad copter at less than 50 feet of altitude. “Without an effective exemption process, [this] simply impedes

American innovation and compels companies like Intel to test their ideas abroad,” he said, adding that the Federal Aviation Administration’s current exemption process is complex. “Our efforts to break the mold through the exemption process has been painstaking,” he said.

A different perspective was offered during the hearing by Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), who said that AUVSI and its members have been urging the FAA to establish a clearer regulatory framework, starting with finalizing the small UAS rule, he said.

In February of this year, the FAA issued an Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on small UAS that will give guidance for commercial systems weighing less than 55 pounds. Currently, opertors can request a Section 333 exemption from the FAA Modernization and Reform Action of 2012, which gives case-by-case approval to commercial operators wanting to fly.

But this isn’t a long term solution, Wynne said.

“The lack of regulations isn’t just limiting the economic potential of this industry; it is also causing states and municipalities to fill the void, at times with laws that they may not have the authority to enforce,” Wynne said.

“In the absence of FAA action, we may soon be facing a legal quagmire,” he said. “It is critical for the federal government to assert its preemption authority over the National Airspace System.”

The Nov. 19 hearing was part of a group of hearings known as the Disrupter Series, which have also touched on the Internet of Things and mobile broadband.