What does the FAA Reauthorization Act mean to the UAS industry?

By Patrick C. Miller | October 10, 2018

The Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2018 recently signed into law is being hailed a significant step forward by those in the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) industry and by aviation law experts.

The act—passed with broad bipartisan support and signed into law by President Donald Trump last week—covers a wide spectrum of topics for both manned and unmanned aviation. But to those who have criticized the slow pace of lawmakers and regulators in implementing a clear path forward for the UAS industry, the legislation not only provides five years of funding for the FAA’s priorities, but also promises more regulatory guidance.

“It’s quite encouraging because it enjoyed very strong support in the three places it mattered—in the Senate, in the House and at the White House,” said Jeff Palmer, president of California-based Kespry Inc. “We read it as showing very strong federal support for the safe and expanded use of UAS here in the United States. This is a key enabler for the industry with a nice five-year planning horizon for us all to latch on to.”

The LeClairRyan law firm based in Alexandria, Virginia, conducted a free webinar led by aviation attorneys Mark Dombroff and Mark McKinnon to help understand the implications of the FAA reauthorization. The slides for the webinar are available here.

"To say this act covers a broad array of topics is an understatement," Dombroff said. "These regulations touch on consumer issues like bumping passengers from airplanes or banning in-flight cellphone calls. There are important provisions on unmanned aerial systems, noise regulations, mandated rest periods for flight attendants, certification of supersonic aircraft and much more."  

For unmanned aviation, McKinnon said, “The act includes wide-ranging mandates for regulators on UAS and makes important changes related to test sites, waivers and airworthiness, pilot, air carrier and airport certificates. Provisions on UAS design standards and package delivery, as well as the operation of model aircraft, are part of the act as well."

In its Wiley Connected podcast, Sara Baxenberg, UAS attorney with the Wiley Rein law firm, and Tom McMahon, vice president of advocacy and public affairs with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), identified three key takeaways from the legislation for the UAS industry,.

“The first takeaway is that Congress is definitely interested in moving the commercial UAS industry forward,” Baxenberg said. “And it’s thinking about all the legislative authorization that needs to be in place and everything the FAA needs to do to ensure that UAS are being integrated into the airspace.”

The second key takeaway from the reauthorization act is that Congress identified ways to mitigate the potential dangers of widespread UAS use, according to Baxenberg. She said the legislation includes expansion of the authority to conduct counter-UAS measures by federal agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice.

“That’s something that our association has supported,” McMahon said. “It’s unfortunate with any new technology, there are people who will figure out how to use it for nefarious purposes. We want to prevent that from happening and maintain the safety of the airspace and the people on the ground.  Professional sporting leagues are now working with the government on how they can put counter-UAS systems around athletic events.”

Baxenberg said the third key takeaway is that Congress wants to evaluate or reevaluate some of the UAS issues that remain undecided, such as how UAS regulation is enforced. She said the FAA will launch a pilot program using remote drone identification as a reporting system. The FAA will also study its UAS registration system to evaluate whether drone operators are complying with it, she said.

Overall, McMahon believes the FAA Reauthorization Act represents an important milestone for the UAS industry. He noted that wasn’t until the 2012 FAA Reauthorization Act that drones could be flown commercially in the U.S., and then it took several more years before Part 107 was implemented. “Now Congress is very supportive of furthering the industry and enabling operations like beyond visual line of sight that will eventually lead to more regulations that will permit more types of operations in the future,” McMahon said.

Palmer said the legislation assists Kespry with areas in which it currently uses UAS, such as the insurance, mining and construction industries. It also creates new opportunities for long-distance infrastructure inspections requiring beyond visual line of sight flights.

“The key enabling thing for our success is the knowledge that there’s an appropriate regulatory environment to enable it so that we know we’re participating in a way that’s consistent with the FAA’s desires and also provides comfort to our customers because they want to operate legally and appropriately,” he explained. “The endorsement value of the federal government doing the right thing enables and promotes this UAS industry for the net good.”