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January 11, 2017

Flying drones, self-driving cars will be debated by Congress this year

  • Elected Body
  • Agency
  • Robotics/AI

USA TODAY – Congress will debate new rules for remote-controlled aircraft and cars this year, a key House member said Tuesday.

Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., told the Aero Club that the key is to find a compromise that ensures drones and autonomous cars travel safely, without hindering innovation in the fast-changing technology.

“We want to keep the skies safe and the roads safe,” said Graves, who serves on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee as head of the highways subcommittee and a senior member of the aviation subcommittee. “We don’t want to hamstring the industry.”

The Federal Aviation Administration currently operates air-traffic control for passenger planes and issues rules for drones, but a House panel voted last year to shift controllers to a private company for more stable industry funding.

Congress will debate the proposed change again this spring, before the FAA’s policy legislation expires Sept. 30, Graves said. At the meeting with the Aero Club, Graves invited suggestions for how the system should work, and how drones should be regulated within that arrangement.

"It's a tough nut to crack," Graves said.

Drone legislation would tie in with bills for self-driving cars, Graves said.

“We’re going to be doing a lot of work this year on autonomous vehicles,” he said, without elaborating. “It’s all going to be wrapped up into the same stuff.”

FAA set rules in June for commercial drones to fly up to 400 feet in the air, within sight of the pilot during daylight hours. But with twice as many registered drone pilots as passenger aircraft, FAA officials have said they can’t provide controllers for drones. NASA is studying a potential private system for tracking drones and relaying flight plans between drone pilots, but such a program is years away.

“We don’t want to ingest one of these into a jet engine," Graves said. "We don’t want to hit it with a small airplane. We’re seeing more and more and more close calls.”

Graves is a private pilot with thousands of hours of experience,  but he struck five geese last year while flying an RV-8, a single-engine plane, that “destroyed the airplane” before he “barely made it to the ground" safely, he said.

“Geese are big when they’re staring at you in the windshield,” Graves said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to hit a (drone) because it’s not quite as soft tissue.”

Drones may ultimately fall under an air-traffic control program, Graves said. If so, they will likely face a fee for that service, he said.

“All of these things are being looked at,” Graves said. “I do think ultimately there will be some sort of a fee situation or structure, or some sort of opportunity to pay into the system.”