Senators wrestle with drones flying near airports

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A senate panel is wrestling with how to deal with drones flying near airports — an increasing problem as drone sightings become more common.

During a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on Wednesday, airport officials raised concerns about their limited ability to stop potentially dangerous collisions between planes and unmanned aircraft systems.

DJI, a leading drone manufacturer, pointed out that it has incorporated a built-in technology known as “geofencing” into its products that can program drones to automatically avoid flying into sensitive areas like airports and nuclear power plants.

{mosads}But the company also warned lawmakers that there needs to be caution when regulating the use of the technology and argued that there are instances when drones can actually improve safety near airports.

“The notion that airports and drones never mix is an oversimplification,” said Brendan Schulman, vice president of policy and legal affairs for DJI. “We have many customers doing important work at airports, enhancing the safety of the national airspace system.”

The hearing comes in the wake of a new report from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that there were 1,274 drones spotted flying too close to planes, buildings or people from February through September of last year — up 46 percent compared to the same period the previous year.

There were also several reports of unmanned aircrafts colliding with planes, but none were confirmed by the FAA. The agency said most of the incidents were found to involve birds or other items.

Last year’s short-term bill to reauthorize the FAA attempted to address the issue by establishing a pilot program to increase the testing of drone mitigation and detection technology at certain airports.

Earl Lawrence, director of the office of unmanned aircraft systems for the FAA, highlighted that the Obama administration’s final rule allowing small commercial drone use puts a limit on drones’ range at 400 feet as one way to avoid plane traffic.

The agency is also working with security partners, local law enforcement and the industry to identify and provide a report on a “suite of technologies” to help detect and mitigate drones.

“We’re looking to do that this summer and come back with some good solutions, not just a report on here’s some standards,” Lawrence said.

But Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who described her own harrowing, near-miss experience with an unmanned aircraft while piloting a plane, said “if something is not done” she will introduce her own legislation to address the problem.

Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said he shares concerns about safety at the nation’s airports, though he noted that language on the topic was included in last year’s FAA bill.

“I think that reflects the shared concern that we have about that issue,” he said.

Emilio Gonzalez, director and CEO of the Miami-Dade Aviation Department, told the panel that the department had to take enforcement into its own hands because it wanted more “immediacy” than what was being offered by the federal government.

“We kept seeing an increase in the sightings of drones,” Gonzalez said. “Our numbers were growing to the point where it was just going to become a statistical issue: not an if, but a when.”

The county issued a local ordinance that imposes a $500 fine on those who operate a drone near airports and launched an aggressive outreach campaign to educate the community about the new policy.

Gonzalez admitted that the relatively small fine is “not a whole lot of deterrence — but it’s what we have.”

“In my opinion, this isn’t enough,” he added.

Requiring geofencing could be one solution. DJI, however, said that there should be some flexibility to allow for exceptions when using the technology.

For example, geofencing can be programmed to prevent drone users from interfering with emergency response efforts, but fire fighters may want to use unmanned aircraft to respond to the disaster and thus would need a workaround.

DJI also pointed out that some airports are actually using drones to conduct facility inspections, assist with perimeter security and monitor wildlife on the property.

“While geofencing is a great feature that helps prevent inadvertent operations, it will always require a balanced approach involving exceptions. Requiring drones to simply turn off when they are near airports is not the right solution to safety concerns,” Schulman said.

“Locking in any specific technology mandate will discourage DJI and our colleagues in the industry from continuing to rapidly develop new safety technologies.”

At least when it comes to providing waivers to the commercial drone rule, which prohibits operations at night or beyond the visual line of sight, the FAA said it has been able to respond in a speedy manner for emergencies.

Lawrence said the agency approves waiver requests to deal with hurricanes or other natural disasters within “one hour.”

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