The drone industry pleaded with Congress on Wednesday to ease restrictions on flight operations, warning that the U.S. is falling behind to other countries that are using the emerging technology in innovative ways.
The use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) has exploded in recent years, with drones being deployed to monitor crops, fight wildfires, inspect infrastructure and assist with first response and hurricane recovery efforts.
But even though the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) finalized the first-ever rule allowing small commercial drone use last year, there are still strict limits on the types of operations that are allowed, including restrictions on flights over people, nighttime operations and flying beyond the visual line of sight.
That has prevented drones from being used for commercial package deliveries, which are already taking place in other countries and could provide a huge business opportunity for tech giants like Amazon and Google.
However, drone operators are allowed to apply for a waiver from the restrictions, while the FAA just launched a new pilot program allowing local governments to partner with the private sector to test expanded drone operations.
But drone advocates told a House panel on Wednesday that the waivers are not being approved quickly enough.
“I’d like to see more flights. Beyond the visual line of sight in areas where there is no population ... those things should be proceeding almost immediately,” Juan Alonso, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University, said during a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee hearing.
“Maybe a little more pressure needs to be applied to FAA, otherwise other countries are going to over take us.”
While the industry said speeding up the waiver process would be beneficial, they said the ideal scenario would be for the FAA to implement new rules lifting some of the restrictions.
“If we can move to an environment where instead of seeking waivers, we have a clear set of rules we can work under, that is a much better environment than having to ask for waiver by waiver by waiver,” said William Ball, executive vice president and chief transmission officer of the Southern Company.
Lawmakers largely agreed that it’s critical for the government to embrace the new technology, but they also said it’s imperative to ensure that drones are integrated into the airspace in the safest possible manner.
The FAA was supposed to issue a new rule allowing flights over people earlier this year, but the proposal has been delayed over security concerns. The FAA said Wednesday that it is unsure when the rule would be finalized.
“I believe that drones are going to present a real challenge in safety,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice JohnsonEddie Bernice JohnsonLawmakers call for investigation into alleged harassment, abuse in women's soccer US must not only lead in artificial intelligence, but also in its ethical application Our approach to schizophrenia is failing MORE (D-Texas.).
The hearing comes on the heels of a new FAA study that found a small drone could inflict more damage than a bird striking an airplane. A civilian drone seriously damaged an Army helicopter earlier this year after colliding mid-air, though no one was injured in the incident.
Rep. Peter DeFazioPeter Anthony DeFazio'Design-build' contracts key to infrastructure success EPA closer to unveiling plan for tackling 'forever chemicals' Congress sends 30-day highway funding patch to Biden after infrastructure stalls MORE (D-Ore.), ranking member on the full panel, said his biggest concern is with toy drones that are not pre-programmed, or geo-fenced, to prevent them from flying into certain areas of the airspace.
“My biggest problem has been idiots with toy drones,” DeFazio said. “Why we allow any toy drone to be sold without geo-fencing is remarkable to me.”