DOT chief defends FAA's drone testing progress

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Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx defended the Federal Aviation Administration's progress on testing nonmilitary drones Tuesday after a federal auditor said the agency was likely to miss a congressionally mandated deadline. 

The Department of Transportation's inspector general said in a report released last week that the FAA "is significantly behind schedule in meeting most of the [unmanned aerial systems] UAS-related provisions of the [2012] FAA Modernization and Reform Act."

Foxx said Tuesday at a breakfast event organized by The Christian Science Monitor that the agency was trying to "step up" its testing as the September 2015 deadline approaches.
 

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"What we've tried to do over the last few months has been to really step up the work on this," Foxx said. "That's why we have four of the six UAS test sites stood up. We've worked to put forth some rules to this point, but we obviously have to work on this other rule here as well."

The FAA has been testing the interaction between drones and other types of commercial and private airplanes at multiple sites across the country.

The agency is facing increased pressure to approve the use of drones quickly because online companies such as Amazon have said they can be used to speed up delivery times. The deadline from Congress was included in the funding bill that was approved for the FAA in 2012.

The FAA said in a statement that was provided to The Hill in response to an inquiry about the inspector general's drone report that it is "on track to issue a proposed rule for small UAS this year.

"As the DOT IG reports, the FAA has faced many challenges to safely integrate Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) into the nation's airspace, but the agency has made significant progress toward that goal, even as it dealt with disruptions due to sequestration and a three-week government shutdown," the FAA statement said.

"The FAA has helped ensure four of six UAS test sites are operational; published a UAS Roadmap that addresses current and future policies, regulations, technologies and procedures required for integration; issued a Comprehensive Plan that includes national goals that reflect our NextGen partner UAS mission needs, and simplified the process that authorizes UAS flight, issued an interpretive rule for model aircraft, published a plan to expand use of UAS in the Arctic, and authorized two commercial flights in the Arctic," the agency's statement continued.

For his part, Foxx defended the agency's decision to shut down drone operations by groups such as the Washington Nationals baseball team and a Minnesota beer company earlier this year on Tuesday, despite the pressure the FAA is facing to allow increased use.

"Let's be clear, commercial use of drones is not authorized unless the FAA says so," he said.

"When we find violators, we're going to go after them," Foxx continued. "We will not allow folks to just treat this like the Wild West and do whatever they want because we think they'll be some safety implications to that." 

The FAA recently approved its first commercial drone flight, which was operated by a contractor for oil company BP.

-This story was updated with new information at 3:28 p.m.