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Senate committee leaders introduced a new bipartisan bill Wednesday that would accelerate the use of small commercial drones in the U.S, allowing some unmanned aircraft to fly at night and outside the line of sight of operators.
The bill represents just one of many requirements for drones either considered or already in use under the authority of the Federal Aviation Administration, which is charged with maintaining the increasingly crowded skies.
Some rules have been criticized, including the recent requirement for drone owners to register with the government, but FAA Administrator Michael Huerta tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson that the administration prioritizes safety and is concentrating on keeping pace with the changing future of drones.
Interview Highlights: Michael Huerta
How important are drones to the FAA in the grand scheme of concerns?
“It’s incredibly important. This is the fastest growing segment in aviation, and it’s also something that is bringing a whole host of new users into our aviation system. These are not the traditional pilots or air traffic controllers that we deal with. These are hobbyists, these are photographers, real estate brokers, and it’s a big challenge to integrate and work with this community to make sure that we’re all operating safely.”
Did it surprise you that drones became so popular among the American public?
“This is something that we have been looking at for a while, but I think all of us have been surprised at how they’ve really captured the public imagination. When you think about it, this is a technology that is really evolving so quickly, and even from where we sit today, we can’t fully imagine all of the possible uses that unmanned aircraft will be put to in the future. It’s an incredibly innovative technology, but it raises very serious questions of how do we incorporate them into what is increasingly a crowded sky and make sure that we are doing it in a safe manner.”
Do you wish the FAA had begun requiring people to register their drones earlier?
“They have been around for a while, but I think one of the things that we’ve been very focused on is trying a whole lot of different things to try to accommodate and respond to the technology. The thing that really got our attention was the projected sales that were expected before we went into the holiday season. We thought this represented two things; the first was it represented a big challenge of how do we educate all of these people about what the rules of the air are, but the second thing was, hey this is a great opportunity to reach out to this whole new segment and we were able, in a matter of a couple of months, to put together a registration protocol and program and as of today we have over 385,000 people registered with their unmanned aircraft.”
Do you have an idea of what percentage that is of all the people who have purchased drones?
“It’s hard to say, but we do know this; since the registry requires you to register as an individual, on average an individual who is registering has somewhere between one and two drones. We know that already we are well in excess of a half-million, and the registration requirement does not extend to the very small drones and so we would exclude those, so we think we are capturing a very significant percentage of those that are out there.”
What are the rules of the air at this point?
“The key thing when you’re operating in the air is a principle called ‘sense and avoid’ or ‘detect and avoid.’ Essentially what we want these operators to understand is; where are airports and how to avoid them, how they can ensure that they are not coming into conflict with other aircraft that are out there, and we’re advising them to stay out of controlled airspace, stay below altitude where they could come into conflict with commercial or general aviation aircraft.”
What would happen if a drone hit an aircraft?
“The first thing is, there are many different kinds of drones. You’re right that some of those are under a half pound and they would likely be blown out of the way by a large commercial aircraft if it’s coming in the vicinity, but there are unmanned aircraft that are very high-performance. Some are as large – with a wingspan of a 737, and they could bump into another aircraft, they could get sucked into an engine, and those are the things that we don’t want to have happen.”
On the approximately 100 reports a month by pilots that drones are flying near them
“A big part of that is education. We’re doing three things to try to address that; the first is educating people of where the airports are in the first place. We’ve developed a smartphone app that you’re able to turn on, it’s called ‘Before You Fly’ [B4UFLY]. You can download it from the Apple app store and you turn on your phone and it tells you, based on right where you’re standing, are there any flight restrictions in place. The second thing is, you know unfortunately there will always be some small number of people that will be interested in perhaps causing a problem or doing something that is not safe flying. That’s where our enforcement responsibilities come in.”
Who does that enforcement?
“We do that cooperatively with local law enforcement. We have the ability to issue civil penalties on our own. There are criminal penalties associated with interfering with commercial aviation.”
Is there a penalty currently for not registering your drone?
“There are penalties in place if you don’t register, because there is a requirement to register but we’re very focused on educating people of the requirement at this point.”
Aside from the legality, what do you say to people who say these rules are too complicated?
“I don’t think that they’re overly complicated. For small, recreational users, it’s basically a handful of things that we’re asking you to do. Stay away from an airport, stay below 400 feet, maintain line of sight and don’t do anything stupid. Now if you want to do high-performance, commercial activities, yes it’s a little more complicated, but we have many tracks that we’re operating on right now. We have a rule making that’s underway that we want to complete this spring that will lay out for a very large class of users what the regulatory requirements and framework are for you to operate. What they’re going to find is it’s nowhere near as complicated as doing it with regular aircraft.”
Do you think drone licenses are necessary?
“For commercial activities, I think it is important that they have a commercial certificate of some sort. Now, we are not saying that is the same thing as a pilot’s license, because you don’t need to know the principles of how to fly an airplane. That’s not what you’re flying. But you do need to understand how you interact with other aircraft and what the rules of the air are. What we’re trying to do is come up with what are the actual requirements someone has to have in order to operate unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes.
On armed drones used by law enforcement
“Public use of drones is a whole different area and law enforcement, our military, those raise a whole host of different questions. We are focused much more on the civil aspect, on civilians that want to operate them for recreational or commercial purposes.”
Is privacy a concern when regulating drones?
“The FAA’s responsibility is safety. We don’t regulate anything that flies in our airspace for its use. We regulate it only for its safety. But the question you’re raising about privacy is an important one for us as a government, as a society and that is something that our partners in government are actively looking at. President Obama asked the U.S. Department of Commerce, through the National Telecommunications and Information Agency, to lead an effort to really assess this question of do we have the appropriate controls in place, is the current legal framework sufficient to ensure that a citizen’s right to privacy is being adequately protected, and we’re actively participating as part of that.”
On the idea of a complete ban on drones
“If we had that point of view of just banning the evolution of new technology, I think that we as a society would be nowhere near where we are today. Think about it, aviation is over 100 years old. Today it represents 5 percent of our gross domestic product and it employs 12 million Americans. It is our largest export industry and it is really the foundation for lots of technology all across our economy. So what we have is a history of seeing something new and innovative being developed and we collectively, as an industry working collaboratively, government and the private sector, we’ve been able to come up with regulatory standards all designed to ensure safety but at the same time to leverage the benefits of technology and I don’t see this one as any different from that.”
Do you own a drone?
“I do not own a drone. I have registered though, so I am one of those that is below one in terms of ownership. I’m still shopping around. I haven’t quite found the exact fit of what I would like to see and my budget, but when I get one it will be used recreationally for photography. I love taking pictures.”
- Michael Huerta, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.
This segment aired on March 10, 2016.