The 2016 FAA Reauthorization Act has been introduced to the House by Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., and Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J. H.R.4441, the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act, includes guidance about drone regulation: outlined below are 8 points that drone operators should know about the proposed legislation.
Rep. Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Rep. LoBiondo, Chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee, have proposed a six-year reauthorization of the FAA – with some major changes.
The AIRR Act package describes those proposals related to drones in a section titled “Safely & Efficiently Integrating Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” The package’s introduction to the section takes the FAA to task for their failure to implement drone regulations, stating:
The FAA Reform and Reauthorization Act of 2012 contained provisions directing the FAA to take steps toward safely integrating UAS into the NAS by September 2015. Among other things, Congress directed the FAA to create test ranges and regulations for UAS. However, the FAA has not yet fulfilled its mandate. As a result, major U.S. companies have taken some of their early UAS research and development activities to other countries because FAA regulations are too burdensome.
The authors say that the AIRR Act provides “additional tools and flexibility” for the FAA to integrate drones into the NAS and to “foster innovation in this growing and rapidly evolving industry.” The AIRR Act proposes the the FAA:
- Create a risk-based permitting process for operations. Other regions, such as Europe and China, have adopted risk based systems for drone regulations. Putting drones into risk categories might allow those industries designated as “low risk” – like flying an agricultural drone over an open field in a remote location – to enjoy a streamlined certification process. (And note: the FAA’s deadline to develop this process this is 120 days after the enactment.)
- Make greater use of the six FAA drone test sites, to further innovation and to encourage the faster development of sense-and-avoid technology. The FAA has teamed with NASA and industry stakeholders to work on testing sense-and-avoid technology as well as air traffic control systems, but they have not allowed enough testing on these sites to allow for quick adoption of new technologies. These test sites are the US equivalent of Japan’s “deregulation zones,” areas where drone technology can be tested even if it would otherwise be prohibited. The act calls for the FAA to “permit and encourage” use of the sites.
- Create a streamlined approach to permitting small drones for “certain uses.” This is an expanded effort to push more applications for drone use through the system, and allows for a system of waivers in certain circumstances, such as some drones used by public entities.
- Conduct a pilot program evaluating UAS “detection and mitigation technology.” With drone mitigation technologies ranging from the Batelle anti-drone rifle to Europe’s trained drone-killing eagles, the AIRR Act calls for a pilot program of 3 airports to test the options. The program’s goal is to evaluate technology that will find rogue drones, identify their operators, and mitigate the drone’s operations.
- Facilitate the use of UAS for firefighting. With growing proof of drones usefulness in firefighting and disaster recovery, public agencies should be able to access the technology quickly and easily. This section would provide for the FAA to collaborate with the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture in order to expedite permitting of firefighting drones.
- Direct the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) inspector general to assess the FAA’s registration process and require the FAA to assess compliance with and effectiveness of the system. With criticism coming from all sides on drone registration, and both the legality and the utility of the system in question, an independent assessment may help to get the registration program either changed, or accepted.
- Establish a government-industry advisory committee on a low-altitude UAS traffic management system (UTM). Industry players such as Amazon have proposed different versions of this; a committee might help the FAA to get some system implemented more quickly to enable drone delivery and other applications. Several solutions have been proposed and even tested; but the FAA has yet to choose one. The Act gives them a deadline of 90 days to put together a committee and 1 year to deliver a report.
- Direct the DOT to conduct a study on the privacy implications of UAS. As state and local governments consider a myriad of drone regulations to address the public’s concern over privacy, this is a timely issue. Clear federal regulations on the point may mean that state and local governments are less tempted to rush drone legislation to the table.
While the bill serves to address many of the drone industry’s concerns, some industry groups feel that it has not gone far enough. The Small UAV Coalition has called for a new class of air carriers for delivery drones, and a micro classification for drones under 4.4 pounds. The AUVSI published its priorities for FAA Reauthorization last week: while many of them are found in the bill, specific reference to ex-line of sight operation is absent. Still, the AUVSI has published a statement applauding the Act, saying that: “…these provisions are helpful for the safe and efficient development of UAS throughout the country, we look forward to working with the members of the committee to enhance the UAS sections.”
In addition to the points about drones, the AIRR Act provides for some other major changes. While the FAA would maintain authority over safety issues in the National Airspace (NAS) the bill proposes “To transfer operation of air traffic services currently provided by the Federal Aviation Administration to a separate not-for-profit corporate entity,” in effect privatizing the Air Traffic Control division of the FAA.
The bill would also attempt to improve the aviation sector’s competitive advantage by streamlining some of the FAA’s certification processes, improve air service for consumers, address aviation safety issues, and provide for airport infrastructure improvements across the country.
The packet outlining the full Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act can be found here.
Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
Subscribe to DroneLife here.