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FAA's Huerta leads discussion on the future of drones at South By Southwest

Michael Huerta, FAA 

By Steve Bittenbender

Michael Huerta, administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration, went to Austin, Texas earlier this week to participate in a discussion about the future of unmanned aircraft at the annual South By Southwest conference.

While at SXSW, Huerta noted that the federal drone registry now has more than 400,000 registrants, and a committee will deliver recommendations on rules regarding smaller drone aircraft by the end of this month. It will publish a rule on that later this spring, the agency said.

Representatives from NASA, Amazon, Intel and other key stakeholders participated in the panel discussion that Huerta led along with Sally French, a noted journalist and blogger covering the technology. Among the topics discussed included the potential uses for drones, ways to further disseminate safety guidelines to new drone operators and how to further integrate drones into current day-to-day life. That includes using the devices for such purposes as search and rescue efforts and potentially to deliver medications and other essential supplies to people living in rural areas.

While Huerta said the work between industry and government leaders can become messy at times, it can produce results.

“The wide array of industry representatives here today underscores that while we may sometimes have different opinions and ideas, we’re all coming from essentially the same place,” Huerta said. “We all view safety as our top priority, and the safe integration of unmanned aircraft is a goal that we’re committed to pursuing together.”

Huerta also used the event to announce that the FAA has released a mobile application for drone users. Called B4UFLY, the app lets drone operators know whether they can safely and legally operate their unmanned aircraft at their location. The app is available on Android and Apple devices and already includes updates based on recommendations from beta testers.

“Many UAS users have no experience with the U.S. aviation system, so they may not be aware they’re operating in shared, and potentially busy airspace,” the FAA said in a news release.

Drones have increased greatly in popularity in the last year alone, and as more take to their air, government leaders have been working to find ways to make sure the devices do not harm others. In particular, pilots have expressed concerns about the unmanned crafts interfering with their planes as they try to land. . Pilots and other officials lodged more than 1,100 complaints in the first 10 months of 2015, representing a more than five-fold increase from the previous year’s totals.

One way federal officials sought to regulate drone usage was through the creation of the drone registry. It requires owners, aged 13 and older, to register their equipment before they can fly in open airspace. The registry, which started taking names on Dec. 21, requires owners to pay a $5 application fee. Registering once will cover all of an owner’s aircraft, as long as they weigh between .55 and 55 pounds.

SXSW bills itself as “the premier destination for discovery” and offers a wide array of presentations and discussions on several issues, including new and emerging technologies. The nine-day conference will end on March 20.


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