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Eric Gay | Associated Press
A test drone is launched by catapult as a trail plane follows on a ranch near Sarita, Texas, on Wednesday. A Texas A&M Corpus Christi research team is conducting tests to help determine how unmanned aircraft system can be integrated into existing airspace.

Senate testimony targets drones safety

WASHINGTON – The accident rate for unmanned drones was worse than all other types of aircraft during the past 20 years, though recently has begun to improve, a Senate hearing was told Wednesday.

That safety record, which is approaching the crash rate of traditional aircraft, isn’t reason to slow the coming boom in civilian uses for drones, Mary Cummings, director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Laboratory, told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in prepared testimony.

Some military drones, such as the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. Predator, are now safer than privately operated planes, she said.

“As a former fighter pilot and a private pilot, I understand the importance of what I am saying – which is that a drone is, on average a better pilot than I am,” she said in the prepared remarks.

Global sales of civilian and military drones may reach $89 billion during the next decade, according to a forecast by the Teal Group Corp., a Fairfax, Va.-based aerospace research company, and Congress has ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to craft rules for civilian operations by 2015.

Cummings didn’t provide specific data about the rates of drone accidents on models other than the Predator.

The chief of the FAA, which Dec. 30 granted approvals for six drone test and research sites across the U.S., urged caution about introducing drones into the skies too quickly.

Because a drone’s operator remains on the ground, aspects of unmanned craft are “inherently different” from traditional planes and helicopters, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in his written testimony.

“Realistically, neither the technical nor operational capabilities necessary exist today to implement the opportunities described by visionaries, but their promises for 21st century conveniences are compelling,” he said.

The hurdles for safe operation include developing technology that lets a drone fly and land safely if its radio link to the pilot is lost, he said. They must also be capable of detecting and avoiding nearby aircraft if they fly among other planes.

“History has made it clear that real risks accompany technological advances and their potential benefits,” Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the committee, said in an emailed statement Tuesday. “Our job is to foster the growth and manage the risks – a responsibility this committee takes very seriously.”

The committee also was scheduled to hear a plea from a drone manufacturer that’s succeeded in other nations at getting swifter approvals than in the U.S.

Japan’s Yamaha Motor Co. has sold more than 2,600 RMAX remote-controlled helicopters for crop dusting and other agricultural purposes, Henio Arcangeli, vice president of corporate planning for the firm’s U.S. subsidiary, said in prepared testimony.

“There is mounting commercial interest and need for the RMAX from farmers and growers in this country,” Arcangeli said. Yamaha Motor Corp. U.S.A. is based in Cypress, Calif.

The helicopter, which weighs 140 pounds and is 9 feet long, has been used for more than 20 years in Japan and more recently in South Korea and Australia, he said. It is safer than manned crop dusters and uses less fuel and chemicals, he said.

While it’s been tested in California orchards and vineyards, it isn’t approved for commercial use in the U.S., he said. He urged Congress to push the FAA to let the helicopter fly in unpopulated areas at low altitudes.

Congress also needs to address the potential for loss of privacy as drone flights increase, Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in written testimony.

“The prospect of cheap, small, portable flying surveillance platforms threatens to eradicate existing practical limits on aerial monitoring and allow for pervasive surveillance,” he said.

He urged lawmakers to require law enforcement agencies to get a warrant before using drones for surveillance.

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