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A recent Time Magazine cover story about Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), lauded them along with smart phones and 3-D printing for being one of three “genuinely transformative technologies to emerge in the past 10 years.” Now, as mandated by the 2012 Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act, a rulemaking process is now underway to safely integrate UAS into the National Airspace System (NAS). It is estimated that as many as 30,000 UAS could be flying domestically in a few years. This certainly has big potential for America’s aerospace industry and the economy, as many domestic uses will add to a spiking worldwide demand for these systems. Indeed, the Teal Group estimates that spending on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles—the flying component of UAS—will almost double over the next decade from current worldwide expenditures of $6.6 billion annually to $11.4 billion.
Unfortunately, much of this potential progress could be undermined by domestic legislation and by restrictive export controls. Here at home, discussion of the positive applications of UAS such as search and rescue, monitoring of severe storms and crop infestations, traffic control etc., has been widely overlooked as a heated debate has arisen about privacy. Indeed, some states and localities have passed UAS moratoriums, even as approximately 30 states vie to be one of the six test sites the FAA will use to test fly UAS and collect data on their performance.
The skewing of this debate underscores the point that our industry must do a better job of educating the public about what UAS use can mean in our daily lives. At AIA, we are doing our part to engage the public with a positive message about this new technology.
On March 28, I hosted a panel on UAS held in conjunction with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 2013 Aviation Summit, which attempted to shed light on the potential of UAS and debunk some of the myths swirling around the subject. Participating in the discussion were: Frank Pace, the President and CEO of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the developer of the Predator; Ellen Tauscher, former member of Congress and Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security; and Wells Bennett, Visiting Fellow in National Security Studies at the Brookings Institution.
Pace spoke about General Atomics’ work with NASA on a UAS payload monitoring forest fires that flew from near the Canadian border to the mid-west to illustrate the point that large UAS can easily be outfitted with equipment that would allow them to be safely flown in the domestic airspace. He also noted that small UAS can be restricted to low altitudes, making sure they “are not much of a threat to general aviation.” Pace said possible uses of UAS include inspecting pipelines in remote areas, monitoring fisheries and observing areas hit by natural disasters. He also speculated about companies like FedEx turning to UAS for cargo delivery services. But for the market to fully develop, he noted, the regulatory climate has to be settled.
Tauscher expressed her excitement about this “phenomenal disruptive technology” but urged the UAS industry to work to re-introduce the subject to the public in a “sustainable, realistic manner” that emphasizes the potential benefits of the technology. “If I were in marketing, I would say you’ve got to get out in front of this,” said Tauscher. “You’ve got to tell people what you are because right now you are being misunderstood….There is a tremendous opportunity that needs to be sold to the American people.”
Bennett told the audience that the FAA needs to set up a viable regulatory framework that meets public concerns about safety and privacy. He added that “from the standpoint of privacy advocates and a lot of people concerned about the technology development there’s a lot of overlap between a privacy regulation and a safety regulation.”
In my remarks, I mentioned that one area that needs special attention in the Administration’s export control reform efforts is UAS. Currently, exports of UAS are treated by definition as exports of missiles in the multilateral Missile Technology Control Regime (of which the U.S. is an adherent). In the absence of a more rational and appropriate approach to the export of this technology, existing policy will hinder a huge potential U.S. advantage as the UAS market grows.
The UAS Panel at the Chamber’s Aviation Summit is just one of the means we will use to get out in front of the UAS debate. In the coming months, expect to see AIA take a leadership role in this discussion with congressional testimony, symposia, position papers, op/ed pieces in major publications and media appearances.