On June 22, 2017, U.S. Senators Mark R. Warner (D-VA), John Hoeven (R-ND), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) and Dean Heller (R-NV) introduced bi-partisan legislation designed to advance the development of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and build on the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) efforts to safely integrate them into the National Airspace System. The Safe Development, Research, and Opportunities Needed for Entrepreneurship Act of 2017, or Safe DRONE Act of 2017, is meant to ensure that the United States is able to keep pace in the development and implementation of unmanned technology. The proposed legislation comes just after UAS industry stakeholders indicated that more regulation would be essential to propelling UAS development forward.

Just last week, President Donald Trump invited a number of key UAS industry stakeholders to attend meetings at the White House to discuss ways for the administration to support the growing industry. What the stakeholders asked for was more regulation that would allow for broader application, e.g., beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations, flights over people, and flights at night. The general concern from stakeholders is that while innovation is happening here in the U.S., the slow pace of regulation is forcing businesses to look overseas at countries like Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The bipartisan legislation introduced last Thursday was designed to address this issue. Sen. Warner specifically cited the need to ensure that the U.S. is well-positioned to keep pace with technology so this innovation stays stateside, in a press release announcing the new legislation.

The Safe DRONE Act of 2017 attempts to address the regulatory needs of the UAS industry in a variety of ways, and makes provision for investment in a trained and professional workforce capable of contributing to UAS development. The first issue the bill addresses is the emergency exemption process. The bill moves on to establish working groups, centers of excellence, provide exemptions for hobbyists and calls for creating a UAS Traffic Management (UTM) plan. The Safe DRONE Act of 2017 is one of a number of new bills attempting to create the guidelines for the UAS industry. The Senate FAA reauthorization bill introduced last Thursday included a provision allowing the government to require recreational drone users to register their model aircraft. The Drone Innovation Act of 2017 was also introduced on June 16, 2017.

It appears that what we are seeing in this proliferation of regulatory activity is the law trying to keep up with technological advancement. In addition to the Safe DRONE Act of 2017, proposals such as the also bipartisan Drone Federalism Act of 2017 seek to provide an increased role for state governments. For commercial applications of UAS technology to continue to grow, we need a uniform framework of laws that will allow the UAS industry to operate safely and with reasonable flexibility. Whether or not the Safe DRONE Act of 2017 makes its way to the President’s desk, we are sure to see more legislation coming down the pike as state and local governments as well as UAS industry stakeholders aim for clarity on UAS regulation.

Here is a play-by-play of what the Safe DRONE Act of 2017 covers:

  • Emergency Exemption Process: The bill directs the FAA to publish guidance for emergency exemptions, certificates of authorization, or waivers for use of UAS in response to catastrophes or disasters within sixty (60) days of when the bill is enacted. This would allow firefighters or search and rescue teams to make use of a drone in case of emergency.
  • Plan for UAS Traffic Management: The bill directs the Secretary of Transportation with the Administrator of NASA and industry stakeholders to develop an implementation plan to achieve full operational capability of UTM. Specifically, the bill calls for the Secretary to establish a timeline to certify a UTM system and criteria for that certification, including the demonstration of the system. The plan is to be completed within one year, published and publicly accessible on an FAA website, and submitted to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in both the House and the Senate.
  • Centers of Excellence: The bill directs the Secretaries of Transportation, Education, and Labor to designate a consortium of public two-year higher education institutions, within 120 days, as Community and Technical College Centers of Excellence in Small Unmanned Aircraft System Technology Training to train students for career opportunities in industry and government service related to sUAS.
  • Policy for Communications among UAS: The bill calls for an interagency working group to be established, within 60 days, composed of federal and non-federal stakeholders to make recommendations for a Federal policy for communications among UAS. A report on the status of the development of that policy is due within one year and annually thereafter until January 1, 2023.
  • Enhanced Safety and Security: The bill calls for an interagency working group to be established, within 90 days, to examine methods and structures to enhance safety and security of expanded operations by small UAS that involve BVLOS and flying over people. Within 180 days, the working group will submit to Congress a report on their conclusions/recommendations for enhancing safety. And, within 270 days, the Administrator of the FAA will release for comment a notice of proposed rulemaking to modify Part 107 to allow operations by small UAS or sUAS (including operations over people, BVLOS, at night, and multiple UAS by a single remote pilot).
  • Extension of Pilot Program: The bill extends Section 332(c)(1) through September 30, 2024 and appropriates $14 million to the Administrator of the FAA for fiscal years 2018-2024 to carry out the pilot program and to be distributed among the test ranges for further research and development.
  • Exceptions for Hobbyists: The bill lists the criteria for hobbyist to receive exceptions and makes provision for the Administrator with government and industry stakeholders to create a process for periodically updating the operational parameters for hobbyists. The Administrator can then prescribe regulations for hobbyist-operated sUAS based on that process.