Amazon has made an investment in lobbying efforts over the last year to get the FAA and lawmakers to pass legislation which would enable drone delivery: and the investment seems to be paying off. A detailed look at the text of the proposed Senate bill shows how drone delivery may come to pass.
Some of the major impediments to drone delivery -the prohibition of beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone flight, the rule against flying over people, and the flood of new state and local regulation – may be removed. The FAA has formed a task force to examine the issue of whether small drones may be allowed flight nearer to people, and the new Senate version of the 2016 FAA Reauthorization bill repeatedly emphasizes the need for allowing BVLOS drone flight and strikes down state and local drone regulations.
The Senate bill first mentions BVLOS flight in the section on test sites; the proposal asks the FAA to encourage the use of test sites to further the development of new technologies. The bill asks that the agency “engage each test site operator in projects for research, development, testing, and evaluation of unmanned aircraft systems to facilitate the Federal Aviation Administration’s development of standards for the safe integration of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system, which may include solutions for…’sense and avoid capabilities’; and beyond-line-of-sight, nighttime operations and unmanned traffic management, or other critical research priorities…”
The need for beyond-line-of-sight operation and clear regulations to support the drone industry is again mentioned explicitly further on in the bill, under the “Additional Rulemaking Authority” section. Saying that “It is the sense of Congress that beyond visual line of sight operations of unmanned aerial systems have tremendous potential to enhance research and development both commercially and in academics; to spur economic growth…through innovative applications of this emerging technology;” lawmakers have made clear that industry should be considered in rule making. Citing opportunities in disaster relief and infrastructure work, the bill emphasizes several times the advantages of supporting drone technology development.
State and local drone regulation also takes an official hit in the Senate proposal. Despite the FAA’s publication of a Fact Sheet stating their authority over the National Airspace, state and local governments continue to consider drone regulation. While leaving it open for states to enforce their own laws with regards to privacy and harassment, the bill makes it clear that states may not issue their own drone laws:
No State… may enact or enforce any law, regulation, or other provision… 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.
While the “micro drone” classification – heavily lobbied for by Amazon, DJI and other industry stakeholders – was rejected by the FAA, who said that they were unwilling to form a rule based on size alone, the Senate bill mentions small drones specifically: “advancements in miniaturization of safety technologies, including for aircraft weighing under 4.4 pounds, have increased economic opportunities for using unmanned aircraft systems while reducing kinetic energy and risk compared to unmanned aircraft that may weigh as much as 55 pounds.”
In a final request for the FAA to implement BVLOS flight, lawmakers exhort the FAA to get drone integration done. “…integrating unmanned aircraft systems safely into the national airspace, including beyond visual line of sight operations on a routine basis should remain a top priority for the Federal Aviation Administration as it pursues additional rule makings under the amendments made by this section.”
Recreational drone operators may not have fared as well in the new Senate bill. As requested by the Airline Pilots Association – and perhaps as a conciliatory gesture to them – the new bill indicates that drone registration may now include an online test. The bill states that the FAA may not impose new rules on model aircraft flown for recreation provided that the operator complies with the known provisions about safety, altitude restrictions, and distance from airports; but adds the following: “the operator has passed an aeronautical knowledge and safety test administered by the Federal Aviation Administration online for the operation of unmanned aircraft systems …and maintains proof of test passage to be made available to the Administrator or law enforcement upon request.” The bill expands upon this idea, calling for a committee to establish an appropriate online test and stating that an operator may not fly unless the test has been passed or the pilot is otherwise certified by the FAA.
The test is designed to ensure that recreational operators understand the basic “know before you fly” safety requirements, which would seem to make sense. But as registration numbers compared with sales numbers show that many operators have already chosen not to register, another layer of administration would seem to make adoption of the registration program even less likely.
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.
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