What’s Proposed for Drones in This Year’s FAA Reauthorization Bills?

Both chambers of Congress recently proposed respective bills for the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) reauthorization, both of which contain important provisions on unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

U.S. Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who respectively serve as the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, along with Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the chairman and ranking member of the Aviation Operations, Safety, & Security Subcommittee, introduced S.1405, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2017, which reauthorizes federal aviation programs through fiscal year 2021.

For drones specifically, according to the senators, it addresses safety and privacy issues, criminalizes reckless drone behavior around manned aircraft and runways, authorizes FAA drone registration authority, and boosts enforcement while creating new opportunities for testing and promoting innovative uses.

It also directs the agency to establish a rule for “micro” drones, which are categorized as UAS weighing under 4.4 pounds – a rule that has long been pushed for by many in the industry.

The bill would also require the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to establish a “delivery air carrier certificate that would allow package deliveries by drones.”

Further, all users of drones (besides those weighing under .55 pounds) would have to pass a federally approved aeronautical safety test before taking to the skies.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) also points out that the bill offers “several provisions that will help lay the foundation for more complex operations, such as mandating a coordinated effort between the FAA, FCC and NTIA to report on spectrum needs for small UAS,” according to Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the association.

On the other hand, the House’s FAA reauthorization is entitled the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act and is being sponsored by U.S. Reps. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee; Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee; Sam Graves, R-Mo.; Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., vice chair of the aviation subcommittee; Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii; and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.

According to the lawmakers, H.R.2997 provides a number of provisions and reforms to reduce red tape in the FAA’s certification process for aircraft and aviation products, foster innovation in the UAS industry, and separate air traffic control from the federal government (i.e., privatize it).

A summary of the bill states that the legislation “provides additional tools and flexibility for the FAA to safely and responsibly integrate UAS into the aviation system, respond more quickly to technology developments, and foster innovation.”

Rather than authorizing the FAA’s drone registration authority, as the Senate bill does, the House bill directs the inspector general of the DOT to assess the registration system and requires the FAA to “develop and track metrics to assess compliance with and effectiveness of the system.”

Further, the AIRR Act proposes a “streamlined process for the FAA to permit the operation of small UAS for certain uses,” as well as a “risk-based permitting process” for operations. In addition, like the Senate bill, this bill would also establish an air carrier certificate for UAS delivery.

AUVSI’s Wynne, who says the House bill’s drone provisions represent a “strong and sustained commitment for the growth of commercial UAS in the United States,” also makes note of an important provision that “mandates rulemaking for a UAS traffic management system.”

“In advance of a rule to implement UTM, the bill would allow the FAA to grant waivers for low-risk UTM operations,” he explains. “This is a responsible and reasonable approach to UAS integration that will help expand the operational envelope and enhance the safety of the national airspace for all users – manned and unmanned.”

Speaking on both chambers’ proposed bills, Wynne says the pieces of legislation show a “strong, sustained commitment for the safe and responsible growth of commercial UAS in the United States.”

Likewise, in a press release, the Small UAV Coalition says it welcomes the introduction of both bills, which are key steps in reauthorizing the FAA before current authorities expire on Sept. 30. Both bills include provisions intended to facilitate the further integration of UAS into national airspace, the group says.

As the nation’s aviation safety authority, the FAA is tasked with overseeing the safe and widespread integration of drones into national airspace, the group points out. Thus, in order to fully realize the vast economic potential and consumer benefits of the technology, the industry needs a forward-leaning, long-term regulatory framework within which it can develop in a safe, responsible and efficient manner. Moreover, comprehensive, long-term FAA reauthorization legislation is imperative to ensuring both safety and economic growth in an increasingly competitive global marketplace, the Small UAV Coalition adds.

However, the Drone User Group, a community-based organization (CBO) that says it represents close to 25,000 drone users throughout the U.S., is proposing some changes.

“The DUGN understands the challenges faced by lawmakers, law enforcement and the public at what they feel are reckless or intrusive activities by drone owners,” states Steven Cohen, president of the DUGN, in a release. “We welcome reasonable regulations that balance the interests of all parties. We believe that our proposed changes achieve those goals while ensuring both accountability and drone user privacy.”

Specifically, the group is offering changes to the Senate bill to encourage businesses to draft privacy policies, as well as hold to a higher standard businesses whose aims are to collect personally identifiable information. According to the DUGN, these changes would ensure that legislation does not ensnare businesses that inadvertently collect personally identifiable information and have no intent to disclose it. Further, this would more narrowly tailor the bill to apply to companies whose purpose is to collect and sell personally identifiable information, the group claims.

“To be effective, legislation needs to not only be reasonable but encourage compliance,” adds Kenji Sugahara, policy director for the DUGN. “One of the changes we suggested includes changing section 2104 of the Senate bill to ensure that civil drone user information was not publicly accessible. We felt that making the information public would serve as a disincentive for commercial drone users to register and comply with regulations. However, we do believe that civil and recreational drone user information should be available in limited situations and have suggested some changes that mirror the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (18 USC 2721). The changes would balance the privacy interests of drone users and the need for the disclosure of personal information in certain circumstances.”

Because there is confusion over notification requirements to airports, the DUGN has also requested changes that would help recreational drone users comply with notification requirements. The organization also asked for changes in regards to abandoned and rarely used heliports and airports where contact information is difficult to find.

Cohen is praising the House provision that creates a definition for a CBO, and while the group feels there could be minor changes to it, the organization joined the Academy of Model Aeronautics in supporting the overall intent of the language.

“We both want to ensure that there are minimum standards met in order to become a CBO recognized by the FAA,” Cohen says. “Without the language, anyone could create a CBO with rules that could allow drone users to endanger the national airspace system and create hazards for people on the ground.”

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