Shore's FAA Tech chief questioned in D.C. about drone traffic control

Shelley Yak of the FAA Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township testifies before a U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Aviation.

 Fending off a proposal to privatize air traffic control systems, a plan that could threaten 3,000 jobs at the Shore, Shelley Yak, the director of the FAA Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., answered questions mostly about drones Tuesday from the aviation subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Yak told the committee, which is chaired by Rep. Frank LoBiondo, that the FAA Tech Center is deeply involved with research and testing that will form the basis of a new 21st-century aviation infrastructure, including an unmanned air traffic management system.

"The FAA is looking at everything involved in integrating drones in a safe way into our airspace," Yak said. "We're working hard with rulings we’ve just put out, and working with industry to develop concepts and operations. It's ongoing work."

Yak testified on a panel mostly composed of private-industry representatives who incorporate drones into their business models, including Sean Cassidy of Amazon Prime Air and Gregory McNeal, the cofounder of AirMap, which provides data for "the drone ecosystem."

Several complained that the FAA currently has no dedicated regulations for unmanned aircraft and that questions are often handled by lawyers trying to interpret current regulations.

"The challenge we face in a lot of these regulations is that there’s no clear defined answer," said Brian Whiteside, president of VDOS Global, which supplies drones for use in inspections in the energy and environmental sectors. "When you talk to the FAA, you often get an interpretation of a rule."

LoBiondo, a Republican from South Jersey's Second District, which includes the Tech Center, said the center's mission was vital to building the 21st-century infrastructure.

'They’re the cutting edge on research and development, safety, and security for the entire nation," he said.

The FAA is facing increased scrutiny after sluggish progress in modernizing air traffic control despite billions of dollars invested in a NextGen technology project.

It faces reauthorization of its Department of Transportation budget at the end of  September amid calls for the privatization of air traffic control, which forms the basis for the work of the Tech Center's engineers, researchers, psychologists, and contractors.

The William J. Hughes Technical Center, located alongside the Atlantic City International Airport and the 177th Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard, has long been a jobs creator in Atlantic County, bringing a desirable population of highly educated, professional workers to an area whose economy is better known for its shrinking casino landscape and foreclosures.

Democrat Rick Larsen of Washington urged the FAA, also represented at the hearing by Marke "Hoot" Gibson, a senior adviser in unmanned aircraft systems integration, to adapt its regulations to the fast-moving industry.

"As we move that industry forward, as the industry moves us forward, a committed set of rules and regulations is extremely important," Larsen said.

McNeal stressed that the FAA should yield authority to local enforcement in certain matters, comparing it to the U.S. Department of Transportation allowing local governments to decide where a stop sign in a town should be placed.

"The point is a very simple one: As unmanned aircraft continue to proliferate, the FAA will be unable to know constantly changing conditions in local environments," he said.

Whiteside said the future of drones will be in routine business, like a roofer or an insurance adjuster who wants to inspect a roof before climbing up on a ladder.

"The drone of the future is probably not a service company but more of a routine tool," he said.

Yak emphasized the broad nature of the Tech Center's work and said the research and testing that are ongoing at the center were crucial to the safety of the National Airspace System.

"Key programs such as Traffic Flow Management, Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B), and Data Communications (Data Comm) have all been developed, tested, or have begun their nationwide deployment at the Technical Center," Yak said in prepared remarks. "Collectively, these programs are already producing operational efficiencies into the NAS."

DataComm incorporates text-based communication in aircraft, she said. The center is also involved in researching alternative fuels to replace airplane gas, the only remaining lead-based transportation fuel. The Tech Center is also researching ways to protect the airspace and aircraft themselves from cyber attack, she said.

"There will always be a need for applied research to respond to those changing needs," she said.

LoBiondo urged members of the committee to visit the Tech Center themselves to see its work. He called it "a national asset and a jewel  in our aviation industry."

He invited the public to send ideas about aviation and the FAA to his subcommittee at transportfeedback@mail.house.gov.