Attorneys see positive signs for UAS from federal government

By Patrick C. Miller | November 22, 2017

Two veteran aviation attorneys believe the federal government is getting back on track with integrating unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace and moving more quickly toward commercialization.

“We really do have reason to be optimistic,” said Mark Dombroff, who co-leads the aviation practice of LeClairRyan attorneys with Mark McKinnon in Alexandria, Virginia. “Whether or not that’s justified, we’re going to know on a very short term. I have some optimism that there’s an alignment of the stars that’s going to give us some movement over the course of the next 90 to 120 days.”

The pair recently conducted a webinar entitled "FAA Reorganization and Change: Everything Changing or Nothing Changing?” in which they discussed developments affecting both manned and unmanned aviation. Although Dombroff and McKinnon agree that there’s been little regulatory activity of significance lately on the UAS front, they cite a number of factors for their overall optimism.

One is the U.S. Drone Integration Pilot Program announced by the Trump administration earlier this month under the Department of Transportation. The goal of the new program, is to involve local, state and tribal entities with private sector players in the drone industry to develop and deploy new operational concepts not currently in widespread use.

“Anytime a White House weighs in, it tends to move the ball,” Dombroff said. “It sends the message to the administrative agencies: ‘Do something!’ I think what they have done is energize the process.”

The question, according to Dombroff, is whether the program represents a significant departure from the FAA’s UAS test sites, which have never received federal funding.

“In some respects, it’s cheerleading with a different cheerleader,” Dombroff explained. “These pilot projects are going to have to get some level of governmental authority—states, counties or cities—coupled with private industry funds. Maybe some companies will come up with funding, but I think that remains to be seen.”

McKinnon considers FAA reorganization a potential plus for the UAS industry because the push for streamlining is coming from inside the agency itself and from Congress.

“The House and the Senate are telling the FAA that they need to streamline and be more user friendly and be more industry friendly when they’re running aircraft certification,” he said.

“While it’s a small part of the UAS community, the requirement that they certify drones is coming in the context of larger unmanned aircraft or drone package delivery where you’re talking about the true beyond-visual-line-of-sight flying and long-distance, autonomous operations. The airworthiness part of the FAA shouldn’t take years and years. For some UAS, that’s going to be a help.”

Dombroff said Congress has been distracted recently and that UAS hasn’t been near the top of its priority list. But that could change with passage of the FAA reauthorization act this year or early next year.

“I think everybody anticipates that the FAA reauthorization is going to include UAS-related language,” he said. “We’ll see what that says.”

In addition, Dombroff noted that the term of current FAA administrator Michael Huerta expires in December, which means the agency will have a new administrator next year.

“That person will have a five-year term and will want to put an imprint on the agency as it moves forward,” he said. “I have some optimism that we’re going to start to see movement going forward on the part of FAA and the regulatory universe.”