News and Commentary. Forums lit up last week with criticism and complaints after leading airspace intelligence provider AirMap released a letter to a lawmaker in support of the Drone Innovation Act, suggesting that the legislation be added to the markup of the newest version of the FAA Reauthorization Bill. What’s the bill all about, and why are operators upset?
The bill is all about state rights to make drone laws. Many forums equated the bill with Senator Feinstein’s Drone Federalism Act and suggested that AirMap had an interest in making the airspace more complicated. But the Drone Innovation Act differs, and supporters say that they simply accept the least damaging version of a necessary evil.
The Drone Federalism Act and the Drone Innovation Act
The Drone Federalism Act was introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein, a lawmaker known in the industry for her dislike of drones and support for strict drone regulations. Generally regarded as an industry-killer, the Act would have granted broad powers to states to regulate drones in any way that they wished. In addition, it would have prohibited flight over public property within 200 ft or if such flight in any way diminished the home owner’s “enjoyment” of the property. Restrictions like these would not only make it more difficult to stay within the law when flying between states, but would also restrict or eliminate many of the beneficial applications of commercial drones.
Shortly after Feinstein’s introduction of the Act, Rep. Lewis offered an alternative in the House: the Drone Innovation Act. This Act also offered state and local governments jurisdiction over drones. However, the new proposal offered a sop to the drone industry: state and local regulations would only regulate airspace up to 200 ft. in altitude.
The Issue of Preemption
All of this seemed to indicate that the FAA was losing their battle on preemption. Preemption is the idea that the FAA and only the FAA is able to regulate the airspace: and “airspace” is all of the space from the ground up. The FAA published a “Fact Sheet” to this effect which they distributed to state governments at the end of 2015. Since then, drone industry groups like NODE and other advocacy organizations have fought a grassroots battle against a hydra-like and ever-growing network of state and local regulations.
It’s a battle that the FAA seems to be tiring of. At his keynote address at the recent InterDrone conference, chief administrator Michael Huerta commented that the agency was now trying to determine what roles federal, state and local governments should play in drone regulations. “Legally, the Federal Aviation Administration has regulatory authority over all U.S. Airspace,” said Huerta. “But successfully blending unmanned aircraft into busy airspace will require state, local, and tribal governments to build upon existing federal efforts to develop and enforce safety rules.”
The constant stream of new state and local regulations causes a problem for drone operators and the drone industry. While one set of federal regulations might be ideal, state-by-state regulations are nonetheless being enacted constantly. And while some of them strive to be reasonable and support a new industry, others are poorly thought out and make commercial operations almost impossible.
In a statement published in response to the outcry, AirMap says that they support the Drone Innovation Act in order to ensure some level of preemption, even if it isn’t ideal.
At AirMap, our goal is to open the airspace for drones, thereby supporting the growth and development of the drone economy. We bring confidence to drone operators that their flights are made safely, and we work with stakeholders of all kinds to ensure that drones have more access to the airspace and drone businesses can thrive.
Opening the airspace is our north star. We have seen what happens when state and local governments feel they don’t have a voice in drone regulation: drone bans and other unreasonable restrictions are put in place that ground commercial drone operators before they can take off.
We supported the Drone Innovation Act because it would ensure preemption above 200 feet, and direct the Department of Transportation to create a national policy that would protect and preserve the right for drones to do business in every city and state in America.
Whatever the future holds for drone regulation, we will always support solutions that give the commercial drone community more access to the airspace, more places to fly, and more opportunities to build their businesses.
AirMap is built by drone operators, for drone operators. This is a conversation we want to continue to have with you, and we encourage you to share any thoughts with us at [email protected]
And What About FAA Reauthorization?
Whatever happened with AirMap’s original letter to encourage inclusion in the FAA Reauthorization Bill? FAA Reauthorization is still up in the air as of this writing. The current extension (of an extension of an extension) passed the Senate after arguments over the controversial addition of a flood insurance clause, but the FAA Reauthorization package must still be negotiated.
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.