House to weigh drone safety

The House Transportation Committee is planning to hold a hearing on drone safety next Wednesday, as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) considers a drastic expansion of the use of the devices.

The FAA has missed a Sept. 30 deadline for legalizing drones that was set by Congress in 2012, but the agency says it is still in the process of crafting regulations for increased use of the devices alongside commercial airplanes.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Aviation Subcommittee is planning to meet on Oct. 7 to discuss methods for “ensuring aviation safety in the era of Unmanned Aircraft Systems [UAS].”

“Recent and rapid advancements in technology have made [drones] more accessible and resulted in many new applications across industries,” the panel said in a statement announcing the hearing.”However, increases in reported UAS sightings by pilots and air traffic controllers have raised safety questions among stakeholders and the public,” the statement continued. “This hearing will enable the Subcommittee to better understand the nature and extent of safety issues posed by the growing use of UAS in the national airspace.”

The FAA has been working on regulations for allowing a rapid expansion of the use of commercial drones in the U.S. for several years. Congress ordered the agency to develop a framework by the end of this year in a 2012 aviation funding bill.

The FAA has faced tremendous pressure to approve such an expansion of nonmilitary drone use from companies such as Amazon, who have said the technology can be used to make speedier online deliveries.

Police and other law enforcement groups are also seeking approval to use the technology, and the FAA has investigated several drone incidents that occurred in conjunction with photography at college and professional sporting events.

The agency has said recently that it has approved more than 1,700 drone flights under a section of federal law that allows the Transportation Department to wave requirements for FAA approval for unmanned aircraft operations that take place outside of restricted airspace and below 200 feet.

Drone advocates have complained that the exemptions the FAA is issuing for the devices are less effective than finalizing the rules for a widespread expansion.

“The absence of federal regulations means many businesses remain grounded until the rules are put in place,” Unmanned Vehicle Systems International President Brian Wynne said during a Sept. 10 House hearing on the pending regulations.

“The current system of case-by-case approvals isn’t a long-term solution for the many commercial operators wanting to fly,” Wynne continued then.