November 29, 2017

Statement of Dan Elwell, Deputy Administrator

Before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Subcommittee on Aviation on Unmanned Aircraft Systems


Chairman LoBiondo, Ranking Member Larsen, Members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you for the opportunity to share what the FAA is doing to safely integrate unmanned aircraft technology into our nation’s airspace. And thank you, Chairman LoBiondo, for your years of public service.  Your unfailing support of the FAA and the work performed at the Technical Center has been critical to the advancement of U.S. aviation.  We owe you a debt of gratitude. 

Accompanying me today is Earl Lawrence—the Executive Director of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office. 

Drones are the fastest growing field in aviation.  What was once little more than a novelty is now used for commercial operations, public safety, law enforcement and emergency response.  There are 95,000 commercial drones operating in the United States—going places that would otherwise be dangerous for people or other vehicles. 

The influx of new, casual drone users continues to escalate even beyond the most aggressive projections.  It is estimated that the full integration of drones could reach a national economic benefit of $82 billion and 100,000 jobs within the decade. 

Within this context, the need for the United States to safely and fully integrate this technology into America’s national airspace system must be a national priority—which is why we’re here. 

Led by Secretary Chao, the Department of Transportation has developed an ambitious vision.  The FAA, in close coordination with organizations across the U.S. government, intends to fully integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system, with drones operating safely and seamlessly with manned aircraft.  They will occupy the same airspace and use many of the same air traffic management systems and procedures.  Most countries seek only to accommodate drones, relying largely on operational segregation to maintain systemic safety.  The vision for the United States is bigger and better.  We seek to integrate, not segregate. 

We’ve made significant progress since our last appearance before this committee.  In August 2016, we implemented a rule to govern small drones.  Called Part 107, it provides a working foundation for UAS integration, while still providing flexibility to allow the FAA to keep pace with technological advances. Since then, the FAA has issued 70,000 remote pilot certificates, 1,100 operational waivers and 10,000 authorizations for controlled airspace operations.

We agree with Congress that challenges remain.  The FAA’s 2016 Extension pointed to physical security, cyber security, privacy and enforcement.  In recognizing these challenges, the President directed us to launch a UAS Integration Pilot Program last month.  This program allows us to leverage the experience of our stakeholders, working in partnership with state, local and tribal governments.

This program will likely evaluate concepts like night operations, flights over people, flights beyond the pilot’s visual line-of-sight, package delivery, detect-and-avoid technologies, and data links between pilot and aircraft.  It will identify ways to balance local and national interests; improve communications with state, local and tribal jurisdictions; and accelerate the approval of operations that now require special authorizations.

Industry and stakeholder engagement remains the backbone for integration. Our UAS industry partners have demonstrated extended and beyond line-of-site operations to support upcoming rulemaking.  We also chartered a Drone Advisory Committee to help prioritize integration activities.  Furthermore, we formed the Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team with industry to identify risks and develop mitigation strategies. 

There is much to do.  Congress can support these efforts by ensuring that all UAS operators abide by the same requirements and certification standards that we apply to all aircraft that operate in the airspace. To that end, remote identification and tracking will be a key component to full integration, such as operations beyond visual line of sight and operations over people.  We deeply appreciate the National Defense Authorization Act that Congress passed two weeks ago that reinstates the registration rules for all small unmanned aircraft.

All of us involved in integrating unmanned aircraft into our nation’s airspace are helping write a new chapter in aviation history.  I believe we will recognize the full economic promise and technological advances unmanned aircraft represent.  Thank you, and I would be happy to answer any questions you might have.

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