Before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Aviation Subcommittee Hearing concerning Ensuring Aviation Safety in the Era of Unmanned Aircraft Systems

Former Deputy Administrator, Michael G. Whitaker

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Chairman LoBiondo, Ranking Member Larsen, Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the safe operation of unmanned aircraft.

The popularity and variety of unmanned aircraft have increased dramatically in recent years.  Many commercial uses are becoming commonplace today, including:

  • infrastructure inspection,
  • surveying agriculture, and
  • evaluating damage caused by natural disasters.  

UAS play an increasingly important role in

  • law enforcement,
  • firefighting, and
  • border protection.

At the same time, the demand for recreational drones has exceeded anyone’s expectations.  This demand is driven in large part by individuals who are completely new to the aviation experience.  They are not necessarily the traditional model airplane operators – members of local clubs who follow safety guidelines and rules. 

These new entrants are often unaware that they are operating in shared airspace. The proliferation of small and relatively inexpensive UAS presents a real challenge: to successfully integrate unmanned aircraft into our airspace, we must integrate these new operators into our aviation safety culture.

We want people to enjoy this new technology – but we want to make sure they do it safely.  This requires education as well as creative and collaborative public outreach.

That is why we joined with our industry partners – including several seated at this table today – to launch the “Know Before You Fly” campaign. This effort provides UAS operators with the guidance they need to fly safely, and is raising awareness of where they can and cannot fly.

We also have an ongoing “No Drone Zone” campaign.  This campaign reminds people to leave their unmanned aircraft at home during public events, such as football games, and most recently, the Pope’s visit to several major US cities.

However, we firmly believe that education and enforcement must go hand-in-hand. Our preference is for people to voluntarily comply with regulations, but we won’t hesitate to take strong enforcement actions against anyone who flies an unmanned aircraft in an unsafe or illegal manner. When we identify an operator who endangers other aircraft – or people and property on the ground – we will work with our local law enforcement partners to prosecute these activities.

To date, the FAA has investigated several hundred incidents of UAS operating outside of existing regulations. Earlier this week, the FAA proposed a $1.9 million civil penalty against a company that knowingly conducted dozens of unauthorized flights over Chicago and New York.  This sends a clear message to others who might pose a safety risk: operate within the law or we will take action.

We recognize that the technology associated with unmanned aircraft is continuing to evolve.  This is also true for the many technologies that could further enhance the safety and capabilities of these aircraft.  Earlier today, we announced a research agreement to evaluate technology that identifies unmanned aircraft near airports.  Working with our government and industry partners, we will assess this capability in an operational environment without compromising safety. 

We recognize too that our regulatory framework needs to keep pace with technology. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 laid out a framework for the safe integration of unmanned aircraft into our airspace. The FAA has taken a number of concrete steps toward accomplishing this goal.

A key component to these efforts is finalizing regulations for the use of small unmanned aircraft. Earlier this year, we proposed a rule that would allow small UAS operations that we know are safe. The rule also meets the majority of current commercial demand. The FAA received more than 4,500 public comments on this proposal, and we’re working to address those as we finalize the rule.

The rulemaking approach we are using seeks to find a balance that allows manufacturers to innovate while mitigating safety risks. We also recognize the need to be flexible and nimble in how we respond to the emerging UAS community. As technologies develop, and as operations like beyond line-of-sight are researched, we want to be able to move quickly to safely integrate these capabilities.

While we’ve made substantial progress on UAS in recent months, we still have more work to do. Recently, the FAA elevated the importance of unmanned aircraft issues within the agency by selecting two seasoned executives to oversee our internal and external integration efforts: Major General Marke Gibson, US Air Force, retired, and Earl Lawrence, who most recently served as Manager of the FAA Small Airplane Directorate. Both of these gentlemen are seated behind me here today.

The FAA has a long history of integrating new users and capabilities into our airspace, and we’re well equipped to apply this experience in the area of unmanned aircraft. I’m proud of the team we’ve brought together to accomplish this, and of the approach we’re taking to ensure America’s aviation system remains the safest in the world.

Thank you and I’m happy to answer any questions you may have.