On Thursday morning, September 6th, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Aviation held a hearing titled Airspace Integration of New Aircraft. The day’s hearing discussed the emergence of new technologies that can be integrated into the National Airspace System (NAS) and efforts being made by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to do so in a safe and efficient manner. Indeed, the opening statement of aviation subcommittee chair Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) acknowledged the unique concerns of integrating unmanned aerial systems (UAS) into the NAS given that such vehicles, including passenger drones and flying cars, would fly much closer to the ground and operate from places other than airports regulated by the FAA.
Although the integration of UAS vehicles could enable new commercial services and provide a very positive impact to productivity across industries, the new technology also introduces risks that can be caused by unauthorized or unlawfully operating drones, necessitating the need to developer counter-UAS systems. “One thing that remains unchanged in the face of these developments is that our number one priority remains—safety,” said LoBiondo, who added that the FAA and U.S. developers must work hard to maintain their competitive edge over tech developers springing up in China and Japan.
The development of UAS vehicles for delivering packages or passengers could go a long way in alleviating issues of congestion occurring along the nation’s roadways. Aviation subcommittee ranking member Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) spoke to these possibilities, citing a recent industry scorecard which found that U.S. drivers spent 40 hours each year stuck in traffic during peak hours, leading to an economic loss of $300 billion in lost productivity. Larsen noted that there were currently more than 50 passenger drones in development and was the first of a series of Representatives attending the hearing to note that such technologies would make the science fiction world of The Jetsons a distinct reality. Also attending the hearing was the ranking member of the full House transportation subcommittee, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), who said that it was critical that the FAA’s reauthorization bill included reasonable regulations on drone operators such as operator identification, noting that a bill amendment supported by Chinese toy manufacturers would prevent this regulation.
“I would hope that Congress in its wisdom decides that we’re going to go down the path of sanity here and allow real regulation, real identification, and not have to wait until we go back 20, 25 years ago when… the FAA had what they said was a ‘tombstone mentality.’ They investigated and fixed things after they lost a passenger aircraft. We don’t want to go back to those days but that’s going to happen with one of these drones being illegally and improperly operated, whether its maliciously or someone who’s just a jerk.”
Testifying for the FAA was Shelley Yak, director of the William J. Hughes Technical Center, and accompanying her was Jay Merkel, the deputy vice president of program management in the FAA Air Traffic Organization. Yak spoke about the two-fold mission of the Hughes Technical Center which was to both sustain the NAS as well as advance the next-generation air transport system. Yak noted that the FAA’s research portfolio included many subjects relevant to UAS development including airport infrastructure, air traffic management and propulsion systems including the use of lithium-ion batteries.
The day’s witness panel also included three members of private industry in the UAS space. Tom Prevot, director of engineering and airspace systems for Uber Elevate, noted that his company had signed two agreements with NASA to explore subjects related to UAS traffic management (UTM) and urban air mobility (UTM). UAS systems being developed by Uber Elevate for passenger transportation could utilize virtual route networks which are dynamically adjusted based on community considerations and air traffic demand. JoeBen Bevirt, founder and CEO of Joby Aviation, said that UAS transport of passenger could save billions of hours each year and credited the FAA’s foresight for dramatically improving the vehicle certification path for UAS vehicles developed by Joby. Mariah Scott, president of commercial drone software provider Skyward, expressed support for the FAA’s Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) collaboration with industry partners to facilitate the entry of more commercial UAS operations into the NAS.
Both Yak and Merkle discussed how the FAA’s UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP) has been proving to be instrumental in opening up relationships between UAS developers and local communities in order to address community concerns such as noise and privacy. Prevot noted that Uber was a participant in IPP and was using the program to better aid the company in developing a drone service for its UberEats food delivery program. The industry panel members were also supportive of Amendment 64 to the FAA’s Part 23 airworthiness standards which provides means for compliance with FAA standards for UAS developers.
While safety was a top concern among both panel members and representatives at the hearing, noise concerns which may affect life in local communities where UAS vehicles operate were also high up on the priority list. Brevirt, who noted that he spent his childhood in a mountain region which had what he called a “pristine quiet,” said that he is passionate about noise concerns and has considered it in every aspect of the vehicle architecture and subcomponent engineering. “Our aircraft is now more than 100 times quieter than a helicopter… When its flying over, you can barely hear it at 1,000 feet,” Brevirt said.
Among the barriers to increased integration of commercial UAS into the NAS that were discussed by the FAA representatives at the hearing was Section 336, also known as the Special Rule for Model Aircraft. “Section 336 does limit the FAA’s authority,” Merkle said. “We believe that repeal of Section 336 is vital to being able to consistently apply all the airspace rules to all operators in the area.” Such a repeal would enable the FAA to work on remote identification initiatives that would then support the next steps of UAS integration, especially in urban areas. Merkle said that, generally speaking, provisions of the House FAA reauthorization bill which target Section 336 would provide the FAA with more authority in this area.
Further integration of commercial UAS into the NAS would also require the FAA to conduct additional research at its UAS tech center. Yak told Rep. DeFazio that the Hughes Tech Center was partnering with centers of excellence to conduct phases of jet engine ingestion tests that would reveal how a jet engine would react in the event that it ingested UAS components or a full drone. Elsewhere, Yak discussed research that was needed to better understand the effect of weather, such as extreme wind gusts, that could affect UAS vehicle maneuvering. Industry partners were also currently involved in research and concept evaluation in partnership with government agencies to expand UAS capabilities. For example, Prevot noted that Uber Elevate was working with both NASA and the FAA to evaluate concepts on dynamic sky lane networks as a virtual network of lanes including overpasses, on-ramps and off-ramps which could be utilized by UAS vehicles.