It’s That Time of Year Again: How Congress’ Proposed FAA Reauthorization Bills Could Impact the Commercial Drone Industry

by Hogan Lovells
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In the last few weeks, both houses of Congress have released draft FAA Reauthorization bills to continue FAA funding which runs out this fall. While the House bill’s proposal to privatize air traffic control in the United States has garnered the most attention, both the House and Senate bills contain lengthy and significant legislative language that could have a dramatic effect on commercial and hobbyist drone operations in the United States.  Below is a brief summary of the main UAS provisions in both the House and Senate version of the bill.  We are closely tracking this legislation and will keep readers apprised of updates as they occur.

Officially titled the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act, the House FAA Reauthorization Bill includes the following UAS highlights:

  • UAS Traffic Management (UTM) System: Directs the FAA to initiate rulemaking within 18 months to establish procedures for issuing air navigation facility certificate to operators of low-altitude UTM systems. Similar to the “Section 333” process in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, the bill directs the FAA to consider whether UTM systems posing the least amount of risk to the National Airspace System or the public could safely operate now, and if so, to establish requirements for their safe operation in the National Airspace System.
  • Risk-Based Permitting Process: Establishes a risk-based permitting process to authorize UAS operations that meet certain safety standards. This section of the bill is a holdover from the House’s proposed Bill last year and was obviously drafted prior to the enactment of the FAA’s Small UAS Rule (Part 107).
  • Small UAS Air Carrier Certificate: Establishes an air carrier certificate for operators of small UAS for package delivery.
  • Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) Operations at FAA Test Sites: Extends the FAA test site program and directs the FAA to permit and encourage BVLOS flights of UAS equipped with sense-and-avoid technology at test sites.
  • UAS Privacy Review: Requires a DOT study on the privacy implications of UAS operations.
  • UAS Registration: Directs the DOT Inspector General to assess the FAA’s small UAS registration system and requires FAA to develop and track metrics to assess compliance with and effectiveness of the system.
  • Study the Role of State and Local Governments: Directs the DOT Inspector General to study the potential roles of state and local governments in the regulation and oversight of low-altitude small UAS operations.
  • Pay-to-Play: Requires the Comptroller General to study appropriate fee mechanisms to recover the costs of regulation and oversight of UAS and the provision of air navigation services to UAS.

The Senate also released its own version of the draft FAA Reauthorization Bill, which includes the following UAS provisions:

  • New Privacy Policy Requirement: Requires commercial UAS operators to have a publically available written privacy policy that describes how they collect, use, retain, disseminate and delete any data collected with the UAS.  Newsgatherers using UAS would be exempt from the requirement.
  • New Database of Commercial and Governmental UAS Operators: Requires the FAA to establish a public database of public and civil (commercial) UAS operators. The database would include the owner/operator’s name, email address, phone number and UAS registration number.
  • Safety Design Standards and New Requirements for UAS Manufacturers:  Directs FAA to charter an aviation rulemaking committee (ARC) to develop design and production standards (consensus safety standards) for small UAS sold in the United States.  In order to sell most small UAS in the U.S. market, manufacturers would be required to certify to the FAA that the small UAS meets the consensus safety standards.
  • Review of Privacy Issues Associated with UAS: Requires the Comptroller General of the United States to conduct and submit to the appropriate committees of Congress a review of the privacy issues and concerns associated with the operation of UAS.
  • UAS Test Sites: Continues test site funding through September 30, 2021.
  • UAS Safety Enforcement: Requires the FAA to establish a program to utilize available remote detection and identification technologies for safety oversight, including enforcement actions against operators of UAS that are not in compliance with applicable federal laws and regulations.
  • Airport Hazard Mitigation and Enforcement: Directs the FAA to work with DoD and DHS to develop, test and deploy counter-UAS systems to mitigate threats from rogue UAS interfering with safe airport operations.
  • Package Delivery: Requires the FAA to issue a final rule authorizing the carriage of property by small UAS for compensation or hire within 1 year.
  • Collegiate Training Initiative: Establishes a Collegiate Training Initiative program to make agreements with institutions of higher education for preparing students for careers involving UAS.
  • Improvements to the Part 107 Waiver Process: Directs the FAA to: (1) publish a representative sampling of safety justifications offered by Part 107 waiver/authorization applicants for each regulation waived or class of airspace authorized and; (2) update the online waiver/authorization portal to provide real time confirmation that an application has been filed and allow applicants to review the status of the application.
  • Study the Role of Federal, State and Local Governments in Regulating UAS: Directs the U.S. Comptroller General to conduct a study and submit a report to Congress on the relative roles of the Federal Government and State and local governments in regulating the national airspace system, including UAS operations.
  • New Criminal Offenses for Unsafe UAS Operations: Establishes criminal penalties for UAS operators that knowingly and willfully interfere with manned aircraft operations or fly within a runway exclusion zone of an airport.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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