Geo Week News

January 28, 2015

Drones at the White House, UAVs on Capitol Hill

small UAVs front

Last week was an important week for anyone concerned with the commercial use of UAVs in the US. For one, a government employee crashed a drone on the lawn of the White House.

More notably, however, and receiving significantly less coverage, members of the Small UAV Coalition met with Washington lawmakers to discuss the FAA reauthorization bill due later this year. Up until now, the FAA’s policy making has been restricted by what was passed by Congress in the 2012 reauthorization bill. The coalition, which includes representatives from Google, Airware, 3DR, PrecisionHawk, and Aerialtronics, aims to have language introduced into the new bill that allows for faster, better regulation of UAVs for commercial purposes.

On Tuesday, the coalition held a press event and UAV demonstration in DC where members including Jesse Kallman of Airware and Lucas Van Oostrum of Aerialtronics made a strong case for expediting the FAA’s lawmaking process. Despite the many established uses for UAVs in the infrastructure, utility, oil & gas, and precision agriculture verticals, and the great successes being had with the technology in other countries, the US has been slow to react. “The total number of exemptions that the FAA has approved is 14,” said Oostrum, “which is less than the number of businesses operating drones on the island of Malta.”

Similar issues were up for discussion on Wednesday, when the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a heading on research and development performed by the FAA and NASA bout unmanned aircraft systems and their integration into American airspace. During the hearing, Committee Chairman Lamar Smith pressed James Williams, Manager of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office for dates that the FAA expected to propose its rules. Williams was unable to offer an answer.

Perhaps the most surreal moment of the week, however, came during the testimony of Colin Guinn, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing at 3DR. While an assistant flew a Parrot Bebop through the crowded room, piloting the device with an iPad, Guinn asked for a small regulatory change that would have a large effect. He argued that if we start by integrating the smallest, lightest, and therefore least risky systems as soon as possible for commercial use, “we can now start gathering thousands of hours of flight time, figuring out what are the issues when you’re actually using these things in the national airspace, not just at the FAA test sites.” This data, he argued, would prove helpful for integrating the next class of UAV, and the next, and so on.

This way, Guinn says, we can learn how to integrate UAVs into our airspace safely and effectively while still “capturing a vast majority of the economic benefit of UAVs.”

See below for video of Guinn’s testimony (and UAV demo).

SPAR will continue to report on this story as it develops.

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