FAA Reauthorization Bill Still Leaves Much To Be Desired For Commercial Drone Operators

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is due for reauthorization and the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee introduced the first draft of the FAA bill today. While the efforts to reform the air traffic control system will likely take center stage in the discussion around the bill, it also includes a number of items around the commercial use of drones.

While the bill represents a step forward in some areas, it still leaves quite a few questions unanswered.

Currently, commercial drone usage involves getting an exemption from the FAA, but that’s obviously only a temporary solution. The current bill continues this exemption process for the time being, though, even as it lays some of the groundwork for a more permanent system.

For the most part, the new bill rehashes the FAA’s language around commercial drones. What’s new, though, is that the bill asks the FAA to take a risk-based approach to permitting. The idea here is to look at, among other things, location, the nature of the mission, known failure modes and both the technology’s and the operator’s safety record.

What the bill doesn’t seem to do, though, is establish a path that would allow operators like Google, Amazon (with Prime Air) and others to operate beyond line of sight. Delivery programs in the U.S. will remain grounded until the FAA opens up a way for beyond line of sight operations.

The bill also doesn’t go into details about how the FAA should manage drone traffic. Instead, the FAA is ordered to establish a committee with government and industry representatives that will assess the necessity and benefits of these systems (for flights up to 400 feet about the ground). The FAA and drone industry, though, is already working with NASA on studying traffic management technologies and procedures for unmanned aircraft.

Somewhat related to this, the FAA is also ordered to evaluate how it can maintain the safety “of air commerce and navigable airspace in light of aviation safety hazards posed by unauthorized operations of unmanned aircraft in proximity to airports.”

The bill would also create a number of UAS-focused positions at the FAA, including those of a Director of UAS External Affairs and a Chief Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Officer. In addition, it aims to expand the utilization of the existing drone test ranges in the U.S., specifically for the development of sense-and-avoid technologies.

The official reactions from the drone industry to the bill show some cautious optimism so far.

Amazon provided us with the following statement from Paul Misener, its VP of Global Public Policy, for example: “We see opportunities to add provisions in the bill to facilitate beyond line of sight operations, and we look forward to working with Congress and the FAA to bring Prime Air – the next generation of commercial delivery – to customers in the United States safely and soon.” The focus here, of course, is on the fact that the bill doesn’t currently feature any provisions for beyond line of sight operations.

Airware‘s Jesse Kallman tells me that he believes that while the bill doesn’t explicitly talks about beyond line of sight flights, “the risk-based permitting section leaves it open to be used for beyond-line-of-sight flights or any other types of operation. Beyond-line-of-sight flights would just be deemed higher risk and therefore would require more of the entity to prove its safety, show how the system can respond to issues etc.”

Even though the bill takes a pretty cautious view of how to integrate drones into the airspace, the government clearly understands that the drone industry is looking abroad to test its systems given the limitations of what’s possible in the U.S. right now.

“The FAA Reform and Reauthorization Act of 2012 contained provisions directing the FAA to take steps toward safely integrating UAS into the NAS by September 2015,” the transportation committee writes in its summary today. “Among other things, Congress directed the FAA to create test ranges and regulations for UAS. However, the FAA has not yet fulfilled its mandate. As a result, major U.S. companies have taken some of their early UAS research and development activities to other countries because FAA regulations are too burdensome.”