Senate committee approves FAA bill with UAS provisions

By Patrick C. Miller | March 17, 2016

The U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Wednesday approved an amended version of S. 2658, the Senate’s version of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act.

The Small UAV Coalition and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle System International (AUVSI) applauded amendments to the bill that the organizations said improved opportunities for the commercialization and integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the national airspace. The current FAA authorization expires on March 31.

The Small UAV Coalition released a statement saying that it endorses the legislation and commends the committee “for striving to protect both safety and innovation as it developed a comprehensive UAS subtitle.”

“Today’s passage of an FAA reauthorization measure by the Senate Commerce Committee is an important milestone for accelerating the civil and commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems, as well as expanding collaborative research and operations,” said Brian Wynne, AUVSI president and CEO.

The amended bill authorizes the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to grant exemptions for UAS operations beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) and at night, noting the integrating routine BVLOS operations into the airspace should be a top priority for the FAA.

However, Enrico Schaefer, a Michigan attorney with Traverse Legal who represents about 160 UAS businesses, said that while some parts of the bill are needed, he is concerned that Congress has created more uncertainty at a time when business needs a clearly defined path forward.

“I have to advise my clients—some of them are fortune 100 companies—about how they roll out their program,” Schaefer said. “It takes a long time for companies to figure it out and then implement it internally. What we need in the market is certainty—a certain process that we can follow to be able to get the drones in the air safely.”

Schaefer advocates continuing on the path established by the FAA to implementing Part 107—the small UAS rule—this year, developing a micro UAS rule and continuing to use Section 333 exemptions to authorize flights for special circumstances, such as BVLOS and nighttime flights.

In his view, Schaefer said, “What’s going on in the Senate and what’s happening in the House really just throws a wrench in gears of giving us a pathway to start integrating drones at a level in which small UAS integration is farther along compared to other countries.”

Wynne said, “While Congress addresses reauthorization, the FAA needs to use all available means to finalize the small UAS rule immediately, and without any further delays, and move ahead with the next regulatory steps on the path for integrating all UAS into the national airspace. Once this happens, we will have an established framework for UAS that will reduce the barriers to commercial operations.”

But Schaefer said, “It seems like Congress is tripping over itself because there’s a lot of lobbying pressure to have the FAA act faster. What they’re doing with this legislation doesn’t seem to advance that cause.”

One area in which Schaefer agrees with AUVSI, the Small UAV Coalition and Congress is a provision in the bill asserts field preemption for the FAA’s authority to regulate the national airspace. Based on previous cases, he believes the courts will side with the FAA.

“Right now, there are a lot of municipalities trying to pass their own laws, and it’s just creating a lot of havoc,” Schaefer says. “Who wants to spend two years in court figuring out whether or not they really did violate some new criminal statute enacted by some municipality?”

Privacy issues related to UAS were discussed by the Senate committee members. Schaefer said existing privacy laws—which he believes should be technology neutral—cover most situations involving UAS. However, the issue of who controls the airspace above private properties has yet to be resolved.

“The big privacy issue that’s out there that’s really interesting is how much do you own above your property above a blade of grass?” he asked. “The FAA says that essentially it has jurisdiction from a blade of grass on up. Private property owners want to shoot down the drone that flies over their airspace. There’s very little court guidance on who owns that airspace.”


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