The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation has at long last approved the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2016, including several amendments related to the drone industry, sending the bill back to the House of Representatives where a more controversial bill – the AIRR Act – failed earlier this year.
The package has not gone through without a struggle. The 95-3 vote came after two weeks of argument over more than 330 proposed amendments, and the threat of a filibuster.
Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) emphasized that the toned down version of FAA Reauthorization finally passing through the Senate represented a compromise: “…we are close to the vote on the FAA bill…To get to this point has been no small task, especially in this era in which it is so difficult to find consensus and a bipartisan way to pass something,” Nelson said. “In a complicated bill like this, it doesn’t contain everything that everybody wants, but we hope our counterparts in the House are going to take up and pass this bill without delay. We have given them a good bipartisan blueprint to follow and one they ought to pass easily.” Nelson warned the House against adding more controversial measures like privatization of Air Traffic control, which could prevent the bill from passing.
The bill contains a number of provisions directly affecting the commercial drone industry, including BVLOS flight, drone delivery, federal authority to regulate drones, streamlined certification, and an Air Traffic Control system for drones (UTM.)
In the section calling for greater use of designated UAS testing sites, the bill specifically mentions the need for research on BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) flight, which would allow for a number of widespread commercial applications. On the topic of drone delivery specifically, the bill calls for the FAA to move forward on developing regulations:
Not later than 2 years after the date of enactment of this section, the Secretary of Transportation shall issue a final rule authorizing the carriage of property by operators of small unmanned aircraft systems for compensation or hire within the United States.
Senator Diane Feinstein’s efforts to strike the bill’s federal preemption clause failed, and the clause that established federal authority and discourages states from passing their own drone regulations stands:
FEDERAL PREEMPTION.—No State or political subdivision of a State may enact or enforce any law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law relating to the design, manufacture, testing, licensing, registration, certification, operation, or maintenance of an unmanned aircraft system, including airspace, altitude, flight paths, equipment or technology requirements, purpose of operations, and pilot, operator, and observer qualifications, training, and certification.
The clause has been considered an important point for commercial operators who fear that state regulations would cause an onerous “patchwork quilt” of drone laws for them to navigate.
NASA’s Air Traffic Control system for drones is also specified. The program, which would allow for broader integration of drones, completed a major test yesterday: but the Senate bill makes it clear that completion of the research part of the project must come within the year.
Not later than 270 days after the date the pilot program under subsection (b) is complete, the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, in coordination with the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and in consultation with the head of each relevant Federal agency, shall develop a comprehensive plan for the deployment of UTM systems in the national airspace.
Perhaps most importantly for commercial operators are the bills provisions for a streamlined certification process centered around risk-based classifications:
Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2016, the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration shall establish a process for the approval of small unmanned aircraft systems make and models based upon the consensus aircraft safety standards developed under subsection (a). The consensus aircraft safety standards developed under subsection (a) shall allow the Administrator to approve small unmanned aircraft systems for operation within the national airspace system without requiring the type certification process…of the Code of Federal Regulations.
While a micro class amendment specifying a class of drones under 4.4 pounds is also included, the FAA has said that they will not entertain a classification system based solely on weight.
Finally, the Senate 2016 FAA Reauthorization package urges the FAA to get on with publishing clear regulations for the drone industry, stating: “It is the sense of the Congress that the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration and Secretary of Transportation should take every necessary action to expe- dite final action on the notice of proposed rulemaking dated February 23, 2015 (80 Fed. Reg. 9544), entitled ‘‘Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems’’.