A final vote by the U.S. Senate to reauthorize the FAA for five years is expected soon, with implications for every segment of aviation, not least among these the use of drones and traditional model aircraft. The House-approved bill repeals a key element of the 2012 law that limited FAA oversight of hobbyists.
That repeal is cited by proponents, including various federal agencies, as crucial to protecting public safety in the age of readily available consumer drones, known in policy circles as small, unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS), as well as others being developed for business and industry to deliver packages and inspect power lines and railroads, as well as other advanced operations. Moving beyond the FAA Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program now underway hinges on developing new rules for unmanned aircraft, rules which the agency has said are not possible to implement under the 2012 law.
The FAA has made clear (in congressional testimony and other public statements) that Section 336 stands in the way of further integration of unmanned aircraft in the National Airspace System, a proposition backed by many businesses and policymakers focused on the growth of a new industry. Section 336 was the basis of a successful federal court challenge of the FAA’s authority to require registration of noncommercial drones, and also precludes the FAA from requiring that all unmanned aircraft be able to broadcast identifying information and facilitate remote tracking by authorities.
More than 100,000 remote pilots have been certificated since Part 107 took effect in 2016. The number of people flying small drones and other unmanned aircraft is believed to be much larger. The FAA estimates that more than 1 million sUAS are already in private hands, a figure projected to top 2 million in 2019. Mandatory registration of noncommercial sUAS ended in May 2017 after a federal judge cited Section 336 in a decision striking down that registration requirement, but the bill now headed to a final Senate vote would allow the FAA to reinstate that requirement and add others.
The 2018 FAA reauthorization bill limits all unmanned aircraft, including traditional radio-controlled model aircraft, to fly no higher than 400 feet. It requires prior authorization for all unmanned operations within controlled airspace, though flights from designated model airfields would be allowed without specific authorization under prior agreement with local air traffic control. The new law would also require all operators to pass a knowledge test, and allow the FAA to require virtually all aircraft to be registered, and marked. It also leaves the door open to other rules designed to support safety and security.
Proponents of the changes have argued they are necessary to maintain safety and security while expanding the use of drones for missions like package delivery (including medical supplies and emergency devices), infrastructure inspection, pesticide application, and a long list of other missions that require operation of unmanned aircraft beyond the current limits, including that the aircraft be kept within visual line of sight.
The Senate passed a short-term extension of the FAA’s operating authority that expires on Oct. 7, with a vote on the five-year bill expected as early as Oct. 3.
“The law authorizes some things immediately, and it also allows the regulatory process to develop for drones,” said AOPA Senior Vice President of Government Affairs and Advocacy Jim Coon. “AOPA will be involved in that process, and we will work for a common sense framework of regulations to ensure the safe integration of drones into our national airspace system.”
The Academy of Model Aeronautics mounted a last-minute push against the legislation in the days before and after the House voted 398 to 23 on Sept. 26 to move the five-year FAA reauthorization to the Senate.
“The bill imposes a 400-foot altitude cap on model aircraft, which, in a single pen-stroke, kills many of our operations that have been safely conducted for decades,” said AMA Interim Executive Director Chad Budreau, in a video posted Sept. 23 with an online appeal to AMA members to contact their representatives and urge the bill’s defeat. “We are not the problem, yet this bill will deal a blow to our hobby and the many local communities, charities, and educational programs we support.”
Those objections were among few voiced ahead of the House and Senate votes.