Before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Subcommittee, concerning Unmanned Aircraft Systems

Former Administrator, Michael Huerta (January 09, 2013–January 05, 2018)

As prepared for delivery.

Chairman Collins, Ranking Member Reed and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for inviting me to testify today.

The FAA supports the growth of unmanned aircraft, but they must be operated in a safe and responsible manner.

Unmanned aircraft are already performing a number of important tasks, from inspecting aging infrastructure to monitoring crops and wildlife.

The number of recreational unmanned aircraft continues to grow. Many retailers already have large stocks of UAS on their shelves for this holiday season. This boom gives us the opportunity to bring the spirit of aviation to an entirely new class of users. This opportunity, however, also poses a great challenge.

Many UAS users may not be aware that they are operating in shared, and potentially busy, airspace. A pilot in the cockpit knows it. A UAS operator on the ground looking up may not.

In recent months we’ve seen an increase in reports of unmanned aircraft coming too close to airplanes and airports, from interfering with wildfire fighting in California to crashing into a stadium during a U.S. Open tennis match.

These incidents make it clear we must work harder to ensure a strong culture of safety and responsibility. There is no single solution to the question of how we do that. The safe integration of unmanned aircraft is multi-faceted, and our approach must be as nimble as the technology itself. 

Registration will be one tool we use to meet this critical goal.  Last week, Secretary Foxx and I announced that the FAA is going to require operators to register their aircraft. 

The details will be developed by a Task Force of government and industry stakeholders.  The Secretary set a deadline of November 20 for the group to complete its recommendations and work is already underway. The Task Force will make recommendations on:

  • The registration process, and
  • The minimum requirements for UAS that need to be registered.

We published these and other questions facing the Task Force members in a Federal Register notice. We want feedback from anyone who has solid, practical ideas on how we can make this a success. 

The benefits of registration are two-fold. First, it gives us an opportunity to educate operators about airspace rules so they can use their UAS safely. Second, registration will help us more easily identify and take enforcement actions against people who don’t obey the rules or operate safely. We believe we’ve taken an important step forward by clarifying that federal law requires the registration of all aircraft – including unmanned aircraft. But it’s not the whole solution.

Education also plays an important role. The FAA and its partners continue to conduct outreach through the Know Before You Fly and No Drone Zone campaigns, making users aware of where they can and cannot fly. And we’ve partnered with the San Francisco 49ers football team to produce a public service announcement that runs on the team’s scoreboard during home games.

We are pursuing similar efforts with the National Football League itself, in hopes that we can reach an even wider audience. We also have some public engagement efforts in markets nationwide to amplify this message.

For those who do not follow the rules, we need to continue our enforcement efforts. Earlier this month, the FAA proposed a $1.9 million civil penalty against a company that knowingly conducted dozens of unauthorized flights over Chicago and New York. It sends a clear message to others who might pose a safety risk: Operate within the law or we will take action.

As registration, education and enforcement focus on enhancing safety around recreational users, we recognize the need to put in place a regulatory framework that keeps pace with commercial uses. This past year we proposed a rule that would allow small unmanned aircraft operations that we know are safe and we plan to finalize the rule by late spring.

While that work is ongoing, we’re using our authority to accommodate requests for commercial operations. To date, we’ve approved more than 2,000 exemptions that allow unmanned aircraft to be used for a variety of purposes.  Under our Pathfinder program, we are working with industry to determine how to safely expand unmanned aircraft operations beyond the parameters of our proposed rule. This past Sunday, BNSF Railway used an unmanned aircraft to inspect miles of its tracks in New Mexico, demonstrating beyond visual-line of sight capabilities. The flight marked the first of what we hope will be many successful Pathfinder tests and flights.

While the FAA is showing the flexibility needed to handle this exciting new arrival to aviation, we remain committed to our number one priority – a safe airspace. We do not want to stifle innovation, but we are never going to compromise on safety. Working together with all interests, we’re confident we can balance safety and innovation.

Thank you and I’m happy to answer your questions.