Drones reshape US aviation policy

The next time you look out your airplane window, you might see a drone close by.

Such occurrences are rare now, but they could be more common if drone supporters get their way.
 

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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is under increasing pressure to quickly approve the use of non-military, unmanned drones alongside commercial airplanes and private jets. The agency has been testing the interaction between drones and other types of commercial and private airplanes at multiple sites across the country.

Online companies such as Amazon have clamored for the freedom to use drones soon to speed up delivery times, and Congress has mandated that the FAA complete testing by September 2015.

Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony Renard FoxxLyft confidentially files for IPO Hillicon Valley: Exclusive: Audit cleared Google's privacy practices despite security flaw | US weapon systems vulnerable to cyber attacks | Russian troll farm victim of arson attack | US telecom company finds 'manipulated' hardware Lyft taps former Obama administration official to lead its policy team MORE said in a July 17 speech at the National Press Club in Washington that he was confident the FAA would meet the deadline.

“As I understand it, we’re on track to meet our 2015 deadline on small [unmanned aerial systems]. And so we’ll keep working towards that,” Foxx said. “This is another convergence of technology and transportation, and it’s interesting and exciting, but we’ve got to figure out a way to do it safely, and that’s what we’re working towards.”

The Department of Transportation’s watchdog has expressed less confidence in the agency’s ability to meet the 2015 drone deadline, however.

The department’s inspector general said in a report that was released in late June 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 defended the agency’s progress with drone testing after the release of the critical report.

“What we’ve tried to do over the last few months has been to really step up the work on this,” Foxx told The Hill in early July.

“That’s why we have four of the six UAS test sites stood up,” Foxx continued. “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 since announced the opening of the final two testing sites, giving it a full complement of facilities to simulate increased drone use.

Drone-makers have ramped up the pressure on the FAA to quickly release its verdict on increasing their use.

“A lot of states would like their state to be the hub of this industry,” Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International general counsel Ben Gielow told The Hill in February. “Ultimately, this is about jobs. This is about innovation.”

Meanwhile, the FAA was forced earlier this year to clamp down on some private entities, including the Washington Nationals baseball team and a Minnesota beer company, found to be operating drones prematurely.

In May, the FAA noted that a near collision between a drone and a commercial airliner in Florida could have had “catastrophic” results.

Safety advocates and some lawmakers have raised privacy concerns about the increased use of drones.

“We need to build in strong personal privacy protections and public transparency measures before commercial drones take off, which is exactly what my amendment will do,” Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeySenate Dems urge Trump to continue nuclear arms control negotiations after treaty suspension Massachusetts is leading the way on gun safety, but we can’t do it alone Lobbying World MORE (D-Mass.) said in June. “This will allow the drone marketplace to evolve and mature, while at the same time we protect people’s privacy.”

Markey introduced an amendment to prohibit the FAA from approving the use of commercial drones unless the agency takes steps to protect U.S. residents’ privacy.

Foxx has said the agency will continue to crack down on rogue drone operators.

“Let’s be clear, commercial use of drones is not authorized unless the FAA says so,” Foxx said.

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

The FAA has thus far only approved one commercial drone flight, which was operated by a contractor for oil company BP.

The agency has established sites to test drones in Texas, North Dakota, Alaska Nevada, New York and Virginia.