U.S. Is Lagging on Commercial UAS, Witnesses Tell Senate

 - January 16, 2014, 12:21 PM
Yamaha Motor Corporation USA would like the FAA to expedite commercial use of its RMax unmanned helicopter in the U.S. (Photo: Yamaha)

The U.S. lags other countries in allowing commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), delaying a substantial economic opportunity, witnesses told a Senate hearing on January 15. Some senators questioned the reasons behind the delay; others expressed concern over privacy rights at the hearing, which was held to consider both safety and privacy issues.

Mary Cummings, one of the U.S. Navy’s first female fighter pilots and now director of the Duke University humans and autonomy laboratory, said the U.S. “needs to move more expeditiously” toward introducing unmanned aircraft to the National Airspace System. “While I applaud the FAA’s recent, but very late, naming of its six unmanned aerial system test sites, I, like most experts in this field, agree that it is unlikely that the FAA will meet its charge to open our national airspace to drones by 2015,” she said. “While we are making some progress toward this goal, the United States is lagging, not leading, the commercial drone boom.”

Henio Arcangeli, Yamaha Motor Corporation USA vice president of corporate planning, said Congress should encourage the FAA to expedite approval of UAS such as Yamaha’s RMax unmanned helicopter, which has a proven track record for precision crop dusting. The agriculture industry in Japan started using unmanned helicopters more than 20 years ago, and some 2,600 Yamaha R-50 and Rmax helicopters operate there today. In recent years, Australia and South Korea have also introduced Yamaha helicopters, Arcangeli said. Last October, the company unveiled a new “Fazer” industrial unmanned helicopter with fuel-injected engine.

In the U.S., Yamaha and the University of California-Davis have flown the RMax at the university’s Oakville Experimental Vinyard, located in the Napa Valley winegrowing region. More recently, they tested the 140-pound helicopter at Paramount Farms outside of Bakersfield, Calif., which describes itself as the world’s largest grower and processor of almonds and pistachios. The RMax showed that it would be “ideal” for treating crops against navel-orangeworms that threaten the industry, Arcangeli said.

“There’s no reason to delay all commercial UAS use for the several years it will take the FAA to develop more comprehensive regulations,” Arcangeli said. “We believe at least some of these products should be available to American farmers today so that they have the same access to the vital services their counterparts in other countries already enjoy, and our country can begin reaping the substantial economic benefits that these new products offer.”

As AIN reported in September, Yamaha has approached the FAA’s Los Angeles certification office regarding the RMax. “We have met with FAA staff, and they have been very helpful in explaining the current regulatory requirements for commercial aircraft and their efforts to develop new regulations more suitable for UAS,” Arcangeli testified. “At present, however, the RMax cannot be used for any commercial purpose…And we have no clear roadmap or timeline for when the RMax or similar UAS might be approved for use in Bakersfield, Napa Valley or anywhere else.”

During questioning by members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller (R) asked Arcangeli: “Why are we, frankly, 20 years behind? Is the reason the RMax is cost prohibitive, or is it overregulated? Why are we not at the forefront in the world on this issue?” Arcangeli said the Japanese government first approached Yamaha to develop “a product” for automated precision agriculture. Thus far in the U.S., he said, the company has research agreements with the University of California-Davis and the University of Virginia, and is “actively doing research on the applicability of the RMax for agricultural purposes and so far the results are very positive.”

Arcangeli said the RMax costs about $100,000. Yamaha USA, based in Cypress, Calif., aims to introduce the helicopter in the U.S. based on a similar model Yamaha uses in Australia. Rather than sell it, the manufacturer would lease the helicopter to an operator with a trained and certified pilot who would fly it for farmers. “Yamaha will always know where the RMax is and will know that it’s being used by a trained pilot who’s doing it safely and doesn’t break any privacy laws,” he said.

Privacy was the other major theme of the hearing. Appearing as a special witness, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, told her colleagues that she once opened a window at her house and spotted a “drone” observing her; apparently it was operated by demonstrators outside the house. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said he would reintroduce in the Senate legislation that he previously filed as a member of the House, the “Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act” to enforce privacy protections.