FAA / Congress Compromise Will Do Little for U.S. Drone Market

short-term FAA BillCommentary. The United States House and Senate have – finally – agreed upon another short-term fix to the problem of FAA Reauthorization; but the compromise doesn’t go as far as earlier proposals to help the drone industry.

The new bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration through September of 2017 is the end result of months of wrangling.  The House introduced the AIRR Act – which would have privatized Air Traffic Control, among other major reforms – early last spring; with the current expiration of FAA Reauthorization looming over them, Congress agreed to pass another extension to funding when the AIRR Act failed.  The Senate then passed a far more modest and less controversial package,  which they urged the House to work with.  But the House decided not to let go of the AIRR Act, and as the deadline again loomed in front of them, Congress finally scrambled to reach this compromise.

As with any hastily cobbled together compromise, no side is really happy – the sweeping reforms and privatization introduced by the AIRR Act are nowhere to be found, and many of the provisions – or even statements of support – offered to the commercial drone industry in previous incarnations of FAA Reauthorization are missing from the final deal.

Here’s the good news: there are some exhortations to the FAA to get on with drone integration.  The FAA is asked to work with the Drone Advisory Committee and the drone industry.  And there are deadlines attached to drone projects- although given the historical mismatch between Congress’ deadlines and the FAA’s delivery those may prove to be specious.

FAA is supposed to keep working on an air traffic management plan that integrates drones – an UAS Traffic Management, or UTM program.  A research plan – which should be already well along –  is due in 60 days after the bill’s enactment; a complete research plan is supposed to be published within 180 days.  After that, stakeholders will put together a 2 year pilot program to test the system.  The bill also calls for a detailed research and development roadmap for drones – one that would point out critical technologies like sense-and-avoid; keeping the Section 333 Exemption program for certification exceptions like BVLOS and night flight; and coming up with a plan and a set of standards for remotely identifying drones and operators.

However, the sense of almost all of the language related to drones in the FAA Reauthorization package can be understood by looking at the document: it’s all under “Subtitle B – UAS Safety.”  Not “UAS Industry Development”, or “UAS Research”, or “UAS Partnerships”: the focus is still oriented to mitigating the perceived risk that drones pose to the NAS.

With a grudging nod to the benefits that drones provide, the bill calls for a way to establish a streamlined process to utilize drones in emergencies management situations, such as fires; it calls for partnerships with the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture to integrate drones into useful civil operations.

And then it proposes a $20,000 penalty for drones that interfere with law enforcement or emergency response missions, a move popular with headline readers in wildfire states like California and Utah.

A big part of the “Subtitle B” section is devoted to that old bugaboo, drones around airports.  Despite industry’s advances in easy technological fixes for this -think of DJI’s geofencing, or anti-drone technology available to cut drone signals close to airports – the bill calls for the FAA to develop a program to “detect and mitigate” drones around airports. The program is funded to the princely sum of $6 million; at the end of 18 months the FAA must report on the program, including the number of “mitigation cases” and the number of “enforcement cases” that result.

The report – which has the potential to expose to view the FAA drone enforcement issues such as Vice’s Motherboard uncovered by filing a FOIA request earlier this year, revealing the extreme inconsistency with which penalties have been applied – will be classified.

In what amounts to a financial penalty against small drone manufacturers, manufacturers will now be required to educate drone operators about current laws, certification requirements, and regulations.  Think about how many articles DRONELIFE publishes on changing regulations, realize that most drone manufacturers are global and responsible for delivering product to many different countries, and you may gain some understanding of the burden.  (Drone advocacy groups such as AUVSI and the Academy of Model Aeronautics have voluntarily worked with the FAA to produce the  Know Before You Fly program, which currently provides this information.)

There are other provisions related to drones in the bill, but in the final analysis what is most telling is what is missing: the real and strong language in support of the drone industry that other versions of the bill included.  The so-called preemption provision, which would have prevented state and local governments from passing their own drone laws – creating the infamous “patchwork quilt” of regulations – didn’t make the cut.  Nor did the “Micro-drone” additions that found their way in to the AIRR Act and some versions of the Senate proposal, which would have eased regulations for a class of small drones.  And while the refund of checked baggage fees for lost luggage is under the “Time Sensitive Aviation Reforms” section, full drone integration into the NAS and streamlined support for testing innovative drone technologies is not.

While the FAA may be set for another year, the U.S. drone industry is losing to other countries while Congress worries more about airports and privacy than it does about innovation and expansion.  But politicians of any party engaged in a fight to keep their seats should take note – the drone industry counts.  As James Carville said during the last Clinton’s presidential campaign: it’s “the economy, stupid.”


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