Jan 15 2014
The Future of Unmanned Aviation in the U.S. Economy: Safety and Privacy Considerations
Senator John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV
Chairman, U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation

Some believe that unmanned aerial systems (UAS) – which many people call “drones” – are the latest evidence that robots or machines are going to take over the world. Other people believe these vehicles present a massive opportunity for American productivity and economic growth. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Unmanned aircraft are a rapidly emerging technology with great commercial potential. But along with this potential there are some serious concerns. Just as we have done in the past, our job is to foster the growth of this new industry while managing the risks. 

Here is what we know about aviation today: It is a major part of our economy and it is relatively safe. Tens of thousands of aircraft use our skies every day to transport passengers, ship goods, or perform public safety and military missions. Given the large number and the wide variety of aircraft that use our national airspace, our safety record is remarkably good. 

I am very proud of that record. It’s the product of a lot of hard work by the aviation industry and safety officials at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other agencies. It’s also the product of some tough lessons learned in the aftermath of some serious accidents. We are going to have to use those lessons as a guide as we confront the latest in aviation technology.

Improving aviation safety has always been one of my top priorities on this Committee. The FAA Safety Act of 2010 and the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2012 took a lot of important steps to strengthen aviation safety, including developing new pilot fatigue and training rules. Striking the right balance between safety regulations and business realities is always tricky, but it makes all the difference for successful new industries.   

In the 2012 FAA bill, we told the FAA to begin figuring out how to safely introduce a new kind of aircraft into our national airspace – a type of aircraft that is operated not by pilots physically present in the cockpit, but by operators on the ground.

Whether we call them UASs, UAVs, or drones, these aircraft are an exciting new development in the aviation industry. But they also raise some serious safety and privacy concerns – that we need to address before the FAA licenses these vehicles for broad use in our national airspace.

Administrator Huerta is going to report to us today on the progress the FAA has been making on UAS integration. He is going to tell us that the FAA is doing what any safety agency should do before it allows a new vehicle on to a busy highway. The agency is carefully considering the views of aviation safety experts. And it is working with manufacturers to test how unmanned aircraft perform in a variety of real-world situations. Earlier this month, Administrator Huerta announced the locations of six sites where this testing will take place.   

Some people don’t think the FAA is moving fast enough. But I understand why the FAA is carefully considering these questions. Lives are at stake. One of the most important problems the FAA and the industry are trying solve is avoiding collisions between unmanned and piloted aircraft. A basic assumption of our current aviation safety system is that each aircraft is operated by a human pilot trained to “see and avoid” other aircraft. What should the rules be when an unmanned aircraft and an aircraft with a human pilot and passengers are converging in the air?

Another significant challenge the unmanned aviation industry faces is a perception problem. Many Americans associate this technology with our military’s use of unmanned aircraft in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. We are all much more familiar with the military applications of unmanned aircraft than we are with their civilian, commercial applications. We are only just now beginning to learn that these aircraft can be used to apply fertilizer to crops, film movies, monitor hurricanes, or, in the future, potentially deliver Amazon boxes to our homes.    

Unmanned aircraft have tremendous economic potential, but we can’t ignore the threat they pose to our personal privacy. American consumers are already under assault by companies that collect and use our personal information. 

As we learned in the data broker hearing we held in this Committee last month, there is a multi-billion dollar industry in this country dedicated to tracking our health status, our shopping habits, and our movements. If the data brokers of today controlled UASs, I don’t know what about American consumers’ habits or choices would remain private. People are right to worry that drones in our national airspace could be yet another way for private companies to track where we are and what we are doing.  

I am looking forward to this discussion today. I want to talk about how our country can benefit from this new technology, without sacrificing our safety or our personal freedoms. I am neither convinced that this technology is only good news nor suspicious that it can never be properly regulated. I think today’s hearing will tell us there’s a lot more we all should know before we get to that decision point.