Commentary. The US Drone Industry seems fated to be a victim of politics. The FAA Reauthorization package currently in the Senate will wait until Monday afternoon while our elected politicians take another long weekend, and the drone industry around the rest of the world gets on with business.
Drone news across the globe this week sported headlines about drone delivery taking place in special government designated de-regulation zones in Japan; the new micro-drone classification rules in Australia (designed to cut “red tape,” say their officials) and China’s continuing rise to prominence in drone manufacturing. Here in the US, the major drone news centered around the continuing fight over drone regulations – or the lack thereof- and the political battle that wages on its weary way through Congress.
The 2012 FAA Reauthorization package expired at the end of last month, and the entire aviation industry hoped that Congress – forced to action by the terrifying thought that the government might lose the authority to levy aviation related taxes – would finally pass a long term package, giving some stability to all stakeholders. But what the U.S. got by March 31 was a hastily passed extension, continuing FAA authorization until July, just before Congress took an extended Easter break.
The extension was necessary after a bold plan proposed by Rep. Schuster in the House of Representatives (the AIRR Act, the one that proposed privatization of Air Traffic Control) was tabled, deemed too controversial to have any hope of making it into law. The AIRR Act had much to offer the commercial drone industry, including an amendment recommending a Micro Drone classification long desired by stakeholders in the industry, and strong language telling the FAA to get on with making clear regulations for commercial drones; and when it failed in the House the Senate did try to carry some of its provisions over.
The Senate produced what they thought was a tame, vanilla version of an FAA Reauthorization – a bill that could pass easily. The new act eliminated the most controversial aspects of the AIRR Act, but included some of the proposals for the drone industry, including a micro drone classification proposal (that one’s already been shot down by the FAA) and strong language about the need to institute rules for BVLOS flight and flight over people.
But as the 102 (so far) proposed amendments to the amendment show, there seems to be no such thing as a “bipartisan proposal.” Yesterday, Senator Thune, co-sponsor of the bill, practically begged his colleagues in the senate to move to cloture on the amendment. (Cloture is a congressional move designed to end a filibuster – it’s the political equivalent of “enough is enough,” an agreement to stop arguing.) Senators voted overwhelmingly in agreement, 94 to 4, showing that they are all as sick of the subject as we are.
They then left for the weekend, first hitting Twitter to let their constituents know what fabulous progress they’d made. @SenateGOP tweeted a link to a news story, bragging: “Senate Republicans are #BackToWork on a bipartisan FAA reauthorization bill that will increase airport security.” and “FAA reauthorization helps non-commercial pilots and addresses the needs of the general aviation community.”
But looking at the Senate records, here’s what the cloture vote looks like:
“During consideration of this measure today, Senate also took the following action:
By 94 yeas to 4 nays (Vote No. 45), three-fifths of those Senators duly chosen and sworn, having voted in the affirmative, Senate agreed to the motion to close further debate on McConnell (for Thune/Nelson) Amendment No. 3679 (listed above)…. A unanimous-consent agreement was reached providing that at 5:30 p.m., on Monday, April 18, 2016, notwithstanding rule XXII, Thune Amendment No. 3680 (to Amendment No. 3679) (listed above) be agreed to, McConnell (for Thune/Nelson) Amendment No. 3679, as amended, be agreed to, and Senate vote on the motion to invoke cloture on the bill… A unanimous-consent agreement was reached providing that at approximately 3 p.m., on Monday, April 18, 2016, Senate resume consideration of the bill.”
What it really means is that the Senate will start again at 3:00 pm on Monday and talk about it for a couple more hours, and then they’ll vote, no matter what, by 5:30 pm so they can all get home for drinks and dinner. And in order to get it done, the efforts made to move the drone industry forward get chipped away and shoved aside so that everyone is moderately happy and they can get it done.
The drone industry is getting better at lobbying. Amazon is now one of the largest lobbyist forces in Washington, and some of what they want will help the rest of the drone industry. The drone manufacturing industry is getting on board, with major manufacturers forming an industry alliance a few weeks ago. Other industry and stakeholder groups have participated in FAA task forces and testified before congress. But it just hasn’t been enough to move Congress beyond arguing over very individual state concerns, like who gets to regulate what, and who gets paid to research it, and what about peeping toms? Most lawmakers are still in the position of pandering to a nervous and ill-informed public before considerations of the broader economic impact that the drone industry offers, and the industry has not yet been able to provide enough education and context to make them see that drones have a far greater potential for humanitarian aid than they do for stealing tax returns off the kitchen counter, as one Senator argued.
The AMA sent out a plea to its constituents last week, asking for them to support an amendment that would eliminate language purportedly designed to enhance safety that actually prevents hobbyists from building their own drones. A large group of industry stakeholders wrote a letter to Congress protesting Senator Feinstein’s proposal to strike language establishing the FAA as the single authority for drone regulation. But at the end of the day, FAA Reauthorization package is a tax bill, and despite attempts to frame drone language in a way that prioritizes the success of the drone sector, the amendments and changes and arguments are far more about each individual state’s needs than a coordinated effort to boost an important industry for the nation.
The final product isn’t done yet, but if you can bear to look, the latest proposed amendment to the amendment to the amendment is here. It has some language about the importance of the drone industry and the need for a micro drone class and how the FAA should get on with drone regulation. But the drone industry will have to go back to the drawing board to lobby again for faster, stronger, clearer regulation – because the current FAA Reauthorization plan doesn’t look like it will help much.
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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