Drones were the hot conversation topic on Capitol Hill on Thursday thanks to one particular Congressional hearing — and the Federal Aviation Administration ended up getting roasted pretty hard because of it.
On Thursday, March 30, the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (which is a standing committee of the United States House of Representatives) hosted a Congressional hearing with its Subcommittee on Aviation. The hearing featured panelists who represent key players in the drone industry, including drone delivery giant Wing, the Chula Vista Police Department, WakeMed Health and Hospitals and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, which is an official FAA drone test site.
The committee, which is chaired by Missouri Republican Rep. Sam Graves, had some unfavorable words for the FAA — including words from Graves himself.
“The FAA’s inability to make quick and sound decisions, and stick by those decisions, has resulted in a lack of clarity for new entrants in the market,” Graves said in his opening remarks. “After over five years of trying, the FAA has succeeded in certifying a grand total of one drone.”
That single, certified drone Graves referenced is the Matternet M2 drone, which in November 2022 became the first (and still, to date, only) drone to hold what’s called a FAA Production Certificate. The Production Certificate basically certifies that Matternet’s management and manufacturing capabilities are up to par, thus capable of producing aircraft that conform to a specific design (that has separately been approved). With it, Matternet is the only drone company in the U.S. that can manufacture, test and issue airworthiness certificates for M2 drones moving forward (the M2 drone will be produced in America at the company’s production facility in Mountain View, California).
Graves then cited examples of many other drones that he says he believes should have more legal powers to fly freely — but currently do not. The makers of those drones cite internal delays and efficiencies at the FAA as the reason drones don’t get approved rather than safety of the drones themselves. Among the notable names Graves called out included Wing, the drone delivery-minded sister company of Google. Google tried unsuccessfully to certify an 11-pound, battery-powered drone made of styrofoam and plastic.
“The agency currently regulates Wing’s 11 lb. foam drones using the same framework that was designed for 400,000 lb. airliners,” Wing CEO Adam Woodworth wrote in an op-ed designed to publish in tandem with the hearing on Aviation Week. “Many of those regulations make sense for passenger-carrying airplanes, but not for small aircraft with no people onboard.”
The crux of the committee’s hangups aired on Thursday is that — while the U.S. seems to be a gold standard in aviation safety — it comes at the expense of enabling the U.S. to be a leader in the drone industry. For example, Wing’s most mature and high-volume operations are in Canberra and Logan City, Australia. While Wing has some operations around the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex and in Christiansburg, Virginia, they’re relatively small and highly regulated.
Some worry that the FAA — in its gatekeeping of the airspace system — is creating unnecessary obstacles particularly when it comes to an unpredictable regulatory process.
What are everyone’s hangups with the FAA in this Congressional hearing?
Besides the fact that many U.S. policies currently regulating drones were originally intended for manned aircraft, drone industry advocates called out the enormous layers of bureaucracy in the U.S. government that make it impossible for rules to even keep up with the pace of technology in the first place.
Among the other wrenches — and bureaucracy slogs — that panelists referenced in the hearing included calls for collision avoidance standardization. Wing relies on ADS-B technology, and Woodworth testified that Congress should provide incentives for legacy aircraft to adopt the same tech, perhaps through restoring the ADS-B program.
UTM is in its early stages of implementation in Europe but is lagging in the U.S. UTM is short for unmanned traffic management, and it’s essentially air traffic control for drones. The FAA established a UTM pilot program way back in 2017, and many FAA test sites are working on UTM-related projects, but the U.S. is far from Europe in terms of implementation.
Drone industry players say that drones are far more environmentally-friendly than existing modes of transport like gas-powered cars or trucks — particularly if it’s something like a driver cruising for five miles (and five miles back) to pick up a 4-ounce vial of prescription medication from Walgreens that could have been delivered via drone (that might even be able to make multiple stops along the way to other homes, as modeled with the Wing Delivery Network strategy).
“Yet, the current backlog of environmental reviews threatens to stall progress on UAS deployment and operations in the United States and further hamper the industry’s competitive edge, leading to frustration for stakeholders and dissatisfaction for customers,” Woodworth said during the Congressional hearing.
Though, there is some debate of whether or not drones are truly more environmentally-friendly.
Others in the Congressional hearing outpointed that the FAA’s paperwork systems are confusing and archaic. Roxana Kennedy, Chief of Police, Chula Vista Police Department, called the FAA’S COA application processing system webpage (named CAPS) “cumbersome and difficult to navigate…not user-friendly.”
She also outpointed flaws in the process, such as that the FAA requires a single user be registered to enter the monthly required COA flight data in the CAPS system, and only that one user can enter information for any government agency changes.
“The website should allow multiple users per organization this is to prevent any single point of failure and allow an alternate or backup user to complete requirements,” she said.
Decision-making contained to folks at the top, with no empowerment at the bottom
Most of the panelists in the hearing made it pretty clear that the boots-on-the-ground folks at the FAA are working hard. It’s a combination of bureaucracy, paperwork and a lack of empowerment by leadership to those boots-on-the-ground workers to actually make decisions that all seems to be causing problems.
“There’s a layer between the leadership at the FAA and the people that we work with on a day-to-day basis,” said Kyle Clark, Chief Executive Officer at BETA Technologies, which is an electric aerospace company developing vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, in a Q&A between him and Graves. “They are motivated, excited, working hard on what they’re trying to do — without the delegated authority to try to make a decision.”
What else did everyone gripe about?
The whole hearing digs a lot deeper into those concerns and many others — and it’s long, clocking in at nearly five hours. You can watch it all here, where it initially streamed live on March 30 and can be replayed on the T&I Committee Republicans YouTube channel:
What’s next for the FAA after this Congressional hearing?
The second half of 2023 is set to be big for drones.
One of the biggest days in 2023 is Sept. 16, 2023. On that day, drone pilots will only be able to fly Remote ID-compliant drones (except in certain situations, such as when flying in an FAA-recognized Identification Area or if the drone weighs under 250 grams, such as the DJI Mini 3 Pro).
Some of the UTM concerns might be resolved soon too, as there is a big UTM Field Test project being done in coordination with the FAA and executed by the folks at NUAIR in upstate New York which is expected to wrap up this spring.
Congress is making its own strides to pave the way forward for drones in America. In the Senate, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) have already introduced legislation under S. 307 called the “Increasing Competitiveness for American Drones Act of 2023.” That legislation, published in February 2023, would streamline the approvals process for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone flights, specifically demanding that the FAA to establish a “risk methodology” to better define which drones do and don’t need certification.
Some industry insights are optimistic to see similar bipartisan efforts in the House as well.
And for what it’s worth, the House is interested in removing unnecessary bureaucracy to allow drone systems like BVLOS to move ahead.
“We cannot allow the opportunities these technologies provide to our constituents to be stifled by endless red tape and requests for more data and studies,” Graves said during Thursday’s Congressional hearing. “The last thing we need is the FAA’s lack of leadership and its unwillingness to accept new ideas to drive the next great age of aviation out of America.
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