House Dems press for more recreational drone regulation

House Dems press for more recreational drone regulation
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Democrats on the House Transportation Committee are pushing for more federal regulation of recreational drones. 

"The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 directed FAA to safely integrate unmanned aircraft by 2015, and it required the agency to issue regulations on small unmanned aircraft," Rep. Rick LarsenRichard (Rick) Ray LarsenBooker takes early lead in 2020 endorsements Senate panel to hold hearing on airline safety after Boeing crashes FAA comes under new scrutiny over Boeing decision MORE (D-Wash.) said during a hearing on drone safety on Tuesday. 

"While FAA expects to issue this (delayed) rule next year, this action will provide regulation to safely implement primarily commercial operations," he continued. "The question I would like to address today is: what should Congress do, and what can FAA do, to ensure the safety of recreational UAS operations?" 

The comments came during a hearing on drone safety that was held on Wednesday as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) considers a drastic expansion of the use of the devices. 

The FAA has missed a Sept. 30 deadline for legalizing drones that was set by Congress in 2012, but the agency says it is still in the process of crafting regulations for increased use of the devices alongside commercial airplanes. 

Larsen, who is the top ranking Democrat on the House Aviation subcommittee, said the increasing number of drone sightings by commercial airline pilots that have been reported by the FAA shows the need for greater regulation of recreational drones too. 

"The 600-plus reports of near passes between conventional aircraft and drones so far this year tells us we need to do more to reduce the likelihood of a drone ending up in the flight path of a commercial airliner with hundreds of people on board," he said. 

"Those 600-plus pilot sightings suggest that allowing anyone to fly a drone on or near the nation's airways is like letting people drive remote-controlled model cars on the interstate," Larsen continued. "Unless more is done, it is not if an accident will happen, but when."

Republicans on the panel, meanwhile, said it is important to find a "balance" in the eventual regulations for drones. 

Rep. Frank LoBiondoFrank Alo LoBiondoThe 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority LoBiondo launches consulting firm Live coverage: House elects new Speaker as Dems take charge MORE (R-N.J.), who is the panel's chairman, said some of the aerial device sightings that have been reported by pilots have been misidentified as drones, though he added that "safety is paramount in aviation." 

"In at least some cases, the reported UAS may have been a government-operated aircraft or a lawfully-operated UAS or simply a bird in flight," he said. 

"To that end, we need to understand what precisely is going on in our airspace – what’s the actual risk and how do we manage and mitigate it?" LoBiondo continued. 

"There are real consequences if we are not cautious enough, though we must not go to the extreme which could unnecessarily restrict the UAS industry’s growth and innovation here in the United States because of so-called 'false positives.',” the New Jersey lawmaker concluded. 

The FAA’s proposed rules define small drones as devices that weigh less than 55 pounds and require them to be operated at heights that are less than 500 feet and speeds that are less than 100 miles per hour. 

The definition of drones as aircraft under the FAA's proposed rules has riled recreational operators of the devices who consider themselves hobbyists instead of pilots, however. 

"While the use of this technology is gaining notoriety and has generated questions regarding safety and appropriate use of [Unmanned Aerial Systems], the traditional model aircraft community continues to operate recreational UAS in safe and responsible manner," Academy of Model Aeronautics Director of Government and Regulatory Affairs told the panel in testimony submitted ahead of Wednesday's hearing. 

"All of our members must fly their model aircraft in accordance with AMA’s National Model Aircraft Safety Code  and affirm their voluntary compliance with the Academy’s safety guidelines and those of their local flying site as a condition of membership," Hansen continued. "AMA’s community-based safety program has been recognized by Congress as well as state legislatures as a safe and effective means of managing the operation of model aircraft and the activities of the aeromodeling community." 

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) union said the increase in drone use is making it harder for pilots to safely operate jetliners that are carrying passengers, however.  

"For pilots, these UAS literally appear out of the blue," ALPA President Tim Cannoll told the panel. "They are much smaller than other aircraft. Some UAS do not have lights. They have limited contrast against the visual background. And they move much more slowly than airliners. As a result, these UAS are extremely difficult to see in flight."  

Cannoll said lawmakers should require the FAA to regulate both commercial and recreational drone use to protect airline passengers. 

"The United States must put safety first," he said. "The FAA is making progress, but we need more. While work on a final rule regarding small commercial UAS operations is encouraging, the agency must immediately address all UAS operations, including recreational and non-commercial."