Attorney lists pluses, minuses of Drone Federalism Act

By Patrick C. Miller | June 07, 2017

An attorney specializing in U.S. and international law for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) believes parts of the Drone Federalism Act introduced in Congress last month are beneficial, but she says other parts of the bill could hinder the nation’s UAS industry.

The bill was introduced in late May by senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). It establishes a process for federal, state, local and tribal governments to work together to manage the use of recreational and commercial drones.

“State, local, and tribal governments have a legitimate interest in protecting public safety and privacy from the misuse of drones,” Feinstein said. “This bill allows communities to create low-altitude speed limits, local no-drone zones or rules that are appropriate to their own circumstances. We need prudent regulations that respond to the variety of new risks that drones present. Our bill provides an affirmative, bipartisan solution.”

Sarah Nilsson, Ph.D., a pilot and attorney who teaches aviation law, global UAS regulation and global UAS risk management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, said some aspects of the legislation are needed.

“This would potentially put an end to the tug of war between federal law, state laws and local ordinances once and for all,” she said.

Nilsson takes issue with a section of the bill which requires the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) administrator to enter into agreements with at least 10 state, local or tribal governments to establish pilot programs within one year of the legislation’s enactment.

“It seems like this would further delay businesses, thereby putting the UAS industry further behind other nations and losing our competitive edge,” she explained.

Nilsson also said the bill could potentially disadvantage those currently using FAA Section 333 exemptions and Part 107 licenses with waivers. She noted that the FAA manages the airspace five nautical miles around airports and heliports and can issue waivers for UAS use within these areas.

Regarding restrictions in the bill on the time, manner and place of operations for civil UAS, Nilsson said, “The FAA already has laws in place for this—especially for commercial operations. So this appears to be redundant. We already have TFRs in effect for sporting events, and rules in place for careless and reckless operation or flying under the influence of alcohol or drugs.”

She noted that prohibitions in the bill intended to protect public safety, personal privacy and property rights, as well as manage land use or restrict noise pollution, are already granted to states through the U.S. Constitution.

Nilsson, the author of the book “Drones Across America” recently published by the American Bar Association, said Congress was attempting to “reinvent the wheel” by requiring the FAA administrator to coordinate with NASA to establish UAS traffic management and other programs.

“This is already an ongoing task between the FAA, NASA and the Centers of Excellence as part of the ASSURE (Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence) programs between certain airports and universities,” she noted.

Nilsson added that a sound UAS traffic management plan should cover altitudes of 400 or 500 feet, rather than the 200 feet stated in the bill.