January 15, 2014

Thune Statement on the Future of Unmanned Aviation Hearing

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senator John Thune (R-SD), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, delivered the following prepared remarks at today’s “The Future of Unmanned Aviation in the U.S. Economy: Safety and Privacy Considerations” full committee hearing:

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for holding this hearing on the issue of unmanned aviation. This topic touches on many areas within the Committee’s broad jurisdiction, and I look forward to hearing from our witnesses.

Unmanned aviation is undoubtedly the next significant frontier in the aviation sector. The FAA currently accommodates limited flights by unmanned aircraft in the National Airspace System with case-by-case approvals, but widespread integration for safe and routine access will require substantial work by the FAA and other stakeholders. Given the potential benefits of unmanned aviation, the last FAA reauthorization bill in 2012 directed the agency to develop the safety standards necessary to ensure this relatively new technology can operate safely and seamlessly with existing manned aviation in our nation’s airspace.

I look forward to hearing a progress report from Administrator Huerta regarding the FAA bill’s mandates, and how the FAA intends to utilize the six recently announced test sites to establish safety standards and regulations for the safe flight of unmanned aircraft.

With regard to the expected benefits of unmanned aviation, I look forward to hearing further analysis of how the market for unmanned aircraft is expected to develop under the regulatory framework directed by the FAA bill, including some specifics on how safe integration of unmanned aircraft could benefit agriculture producers, weather forecasting, and public safety.

As safety regulators work through the challenges of the integration of unmanned aircraft, questions related to privacy have certainly received a lot of attention. I look forward to hearing from the witnesses regarding the current framework of privacy protections – including at the six test sites – and discussing what role, if any, the FAA should have in policing those concerns.

Of course, as we consider the privacy implications for unmanned aircraft, we will likely need to think beyond the now-common image of military-style drones – perhaps Amazon’s recent discussion about possibly using unmanned aircraft for package deliveries has already done that.

These aircraft are currently being flown, albeit in limited fashion, around the world, and the benefits certainly look promising. We must also remember that the aviation industry is a competitive worldwide industry, and the timely resolution of both the safety issues and privacy concerns will be necessary for the U.S. to utilize such technologies, while also maintaining its leadership position in this emerging aviation sector.

While this is certainly not the only hearing this Committee will hold on this topic, I look forward to today’s discussion of these challenging issues, and I thank the witnesses for their participation.