Harnessing Drones

Lawmakers Tackle UAV Safety

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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A number of companies, including agriculture precision and scouting companies, already have been granted exemptions to fly unmanned aerial vehicles, according to FAA. (DTN/The Progressive Farmer photo by Jim Patrico)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Congress recently has focused on the need to secure airports from unmanned aerial vehicles as reported near-misses with commercial airliners have been growing in frequency. But a House committee Wednesday grilled a Federal Aviation Administration official on continued delays in implementing UAV regulations and exemptions.

In particular, some representatives from rural areas raised questions about the state of exemptions granted to companies that wish to operate drones before federal regulations are completed. The FAA was required by law to set regulations by September 2015. A federal official testified that the FAA now is on target to complete regulations for UAVs 55 pounds and lighter by June 2016.

A number of companies wish to launch a variety of commercial UAV applications in agriculture in particular and have been allowed to do so through exemptions.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee questioned a panel of experts Wednesday on how to protect manned aircraft from UAVs operating around airports. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., has offered legislation that would restrict the use of UAVs within 2 miles of airports.

In addition, with harvest well underway in some parts of the country, Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., said he was concerned current FAA exemptions for using drones allow for only daytime operations.

"Farmers may want to be in the field soon," he said. "In a farm field they (drones) can be used around the clock."

Michael G. Whitaker, deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, said farmers who use drone technology at night during harvest "could be allowed by exemption" to do so.

Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., said while the FAA's exemption process has allowed companies to proceed with the commercial use of UAVs, the exemption process hasn't been fast enough.

"Part of my concerns have to do with the exemption process moving slowly," he said. "Now that it has sped up, the older requests are limited versus the new requests, based on technology improvements. There might be some concern that older exemptions should have flexibility similar to newer."

As of Sept. 30, 2015, FAA had granted 1,742 petitions for what is known as a FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Section 333 exemption, according to data from FAA's website.

By law, aircraft operation in national airspace requires certified and registered aircraft, a pilot license and operational approval.

According to FAA (http://tinyurl.com/…) a number of companies including agriculture precision and scouting companies already have been granted Section 333 exemptions.

Much of the committee hearing focused on what aviation officials said Wednesday is a growing number of close calls airliners and other planes have had with UAVs. The hearing comes just one day after the FAA fined a company in New York about $2 million for improperly flying drones in restricted airspace.

Rep. Michael E. Capuano, D-Mass., said the FAA needs to take steps to protect airspace before it's too late.

"Doing nothing is not an excuse," he said. "I see a reluctance to do something, especially the FAA. Do something before someone loses their life. Just get it done. Something is always better than nothing in the face of a known danger."

Whitaker said FAA is attempting to provide much-needed education about the safe use of drones in two recently launched public campaigns.

FAA developed the "Know Before You Fly" and "No Drone Zone" programs. The first is a public-relations campaign aimed at what Whitaker said is conveying "commonsense advice" including don't fly near airports, don't fly in adverse weather, don't fly under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and don't fly over people or sensitive infrastructure such as power plants.

The second campaign launched during the most recent Super Bowl game earlier in 2015 includes a video posted on YouTube that received more than 59,000 hits.

"Most importantly, we received no reports of unauthorized activity in the restricted airspace around the stadium," Whitaker said in his written testimony.

"We want people to enjoy their hobby, but we want to make sure they fly safely. Education, such as the programs noted above, has been our preferred method for successfully integrating UAS operators. We can never let an educational opportunity slip by. We need to be creative and collaborative in our approach to reaching the public."

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

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Todd Neeley