Unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, represent the latest frontier in aviation technology. While still a new industry, UAS are already contributing to our economy and changing how companies do business. Across the country, we already see UAS used for a myriad of operations, from surveying, photography and safety inspections, to medical delivery and search and rescue. With each new use, businesses and commercial users can save time, money, and even lives.
But like any other new technology, UAS bring new challenges as well. In the past year, pilots have been reporting sightings of UAS near airports at an accelerating rate. In 2014, the FAA received 238 reports of drone sightings. In 2015, the number has already exceeded 600.
Safety is paramount in aviation and the increased number of suspected sightings raises serious questions. Some of these reports involved airliners and occurred at low altitudes near the nation’s busiest airports. Other reports involve pilots of general aviation aircraft in less busy airspace. The real possibility of a mid-air collision must be taken seriously in order to prevent tragic consequences.
To be clear, it is also my understanding that some of these reported sightings may involve something other than a consumer unwisely operating their new gadget in busy controlled airspace or restricted airspace. In at least some cases, the reported UAS may have been a government-operated aircraft or a lawfully-operated UAS or simply a bird in flight.
To that end, we need to understand what precisely is going on in our airspace – what’s the actual risk and how do we manage and mitigate it? With retailers readying for significant UAS purchases by American consumers this upcoming holiday season, this conversation and subsequent action cannot wait. There are real consequences if we are not cautious enough, though we must not go to the extreme which could unnecessarily restrict the UAS industry’s growth and innovation here in the United States because of so-called “false positives.”
The key is balance, and I believe that this committee, as well as the FAA and stakeholders, continue to strive for just that. The answers to these questions will be complex, though I am confident that our country can and will address them. I look forward to hearing from our witnesses and thank them for joining us today.