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Senate hearing presses FAA to let drones fly

Amazon Drone

Amazon finally got approval from the FAA last week to test its drone delivery system outdoors. Trouble was, the process took so long that by the time the FAA gave the e-commerce giant the okay, Amazon had moved on to an improved unmanned aircraft system (UAS).

Amazon was exhibit number one Tuesday during a Senate commerce subcommittee hearing on drones, a technology that holds promise for many applications, from agriculture to newsgathering.

But while other countries like Germany, the U.K and France have moved rapidly to deploy drones, U.S. regulators are still grappling with a technology that is moving faster than the wheels of government.

“Obtaining permission took far too long, and certainly much longer – over a half a year – than it took in other countries,” Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of global public policy told the subcommittee on aviation operations, safety and security.

Members on both sides of the aisle seemed to agree that the FAA could move faster.

“When it comes to the government moving at the speed of innovation, we are being left behind,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) “Those revolutions are happening overseas. It puts America in the backseat.”

Pressed by committee members, Margaret Gilligan, the FAA’s associate administrator for aviation safety, said the problem was that the agency hadn’t figured out how to properly mitigate the risk for devices that aren’t manufactured to any standards. The challenge for the FAA is dealing with how an operator and the unmanned aircraft can sense and avoid other craft.

Until the agency figures that out, the FAA has restricted drone use over populated areas, cutting drones out of news gathering, an use of drones raised by Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.).

“We haven’t figured out how we can properly mitigate the risk. We agree there is a good use in the news gathering environment, but if there would be an accident, the question this committee would be asking is how is it we authorized that.”

Misener was careful not to bash the FAA too much. “I do believe the FAA has turned a corner. They’ve gotten better with testing,” he said. “We’re not preparing like the Europeans and we should be.”