Congress, FAA Look to Speed UAS Access To Airspace

 - May 13, 2014, 10:58 PM
House Aviation Subcommittee chairman Frank LoBiondo addresses the Unmanned Systems 2014 conference in Orlando. (Photo: Bill Carey/AIN)

U.S. congressional leaders, addressing those attending the Unmanned Systems Conference in Orlando on Tuesday, said Congress will likely expedite provisions of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act that require the FAA to introduce unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the nation’s airspace. Speaking at the same conference, the FAA’s lead UAS executive said the agency will use one such provision to allow limited commercial use of unmanned aircraft, which is currently prohibited.

In a rousing keynote speech, Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, told attendees that his subcommittee is “looking to find ways to encourage the FAA to let you do what you can do. We’re not going to flip the switch and turn the whole nation on at one time–we know that. But there are things that we can do today, and I am desperate as you are to see that potential unleashed, to let us show the rest of the nation what is available to us and what the potential is. This is an enormous frontier for us with tremendous potential.”

Congress is preparing for the next FAA reauthorization bill to succeed the present legislation, which expires in September 2015. LoBiondo said his goal is to “put forth a product that is an enabler and not something that holds back.” He said the U.S. risks losing its leadership position in unmanned aircraft if it continues restricting the industry. “I don’t want to play second fiddle to China, to Russia, to Europe on anything–especially this,” he added.

While LoBiondo did not commit to specific measures, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who was chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee when Congress passed the 2012 act, said he expects lawmakers will add teeth to the next reauthorization bill to expedite progress on UAS. “That [legislation] that we’re operating on will probably need to be revised,” Mica said. “Unfortunately, like many government programs we’re behind schedule. My prediction is that our [Aviation] committee will probably have to put some new language in and some new deadlines in, pushing unfortunately the goalpost forward.”

In a separate presentation at the conference, Jim Williams, manager of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office, said four companies in different industries have approached the agency regarding a provision of the 2012 reauthorization act that would allow them to operate UAS commercially without the aircraft manufacturers first securing design approval and airworthiness certification of their models. Section 333 of the act, entitled “Special Rules for Certain Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” states that the secretary of Transportation can determine “if certain unmanned aircraft systems may operate safely in the national airspace system” before the FAA completes the rulemaking process.

Williams said the companies want to use UAS for precision agriculture, filmmaking, powerline inspection and industrial flare stack inspection. He expected one company to file for an exemption to the regulations under Section 333 shortly. The filing would be followed by a comment period. Assuming the proposed operation satisfied safety requirements, the FAA would then issue a certificate of authorization.

Immediately following Williams’ remarks, the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which sponsors the Unmanned Systems Conference, issued a press release applauding the FAA’s move to allow “limited commercial operations” of small unmanned aircraft. But the association reiterated its call for the FAA to release the long-delayed small UAS notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM). Williams told convention attendees that the FAA hopes to issue the draft rule by the end of the year. The process of soliciting comments to the NPRM and formulating a final rule could take another 18 months, however.