On April 19, the United States Senate passed bipartisan legislation that would reauthorize federal funding for the Federal Aviation Administration for the next two fiscal years. The Senate-passed bill, which will not take effect until the House and Senate negotiate a compromised legislation and the President signs the resulting legislation into law, includes a comprehensive regulatory regime for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

The bill would direct the FAA and the National Institute for Standards and Technology to develop risk-based, consensus industry standards on UAS aircraft safety and would charge FAA with developing standards for airworthiness approval of small UAS that are less burdensome than certification standards for large aircraft. Commercial UAS operators would be subjected to an aeronautical knowledge and safety exam prior to operating UAS larger than 0.55 pounds. The legislation would reauthorize and expand the “section 333” exemption authority to authorize certain UAS operations in the national airspace and would require FAA to offer a special exemption to commercial and government UAS operators seeking to contribute to emergency response efforts. The bill also authorizes the FAA, after a notice-and-comment rulemaking, to develop a system for collecting fees from commercial UAS operators to recover the costs of its UAS regulatory activities.

The Senate bill includes a provision for federal preemption that would grant the FAA regulations preemption over local and state laws governing UAS. Under the proposal, states would not be able to “enact or enforce any law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law relating to the design, manufacture, testing, licensing, registration, certification, operation, or maintenance of an unmanned aircraft system.”

The Senate bill also includes requirements related to privacy with UAS operations. Under the proposed requirements, commercial UAS operators (other than news gathering entities) should respect personal privacy and implement written privacy policies regarding the collection and retention of any data collected by a UAS. The bill would also require the FAA to establish a public database disclosing information regarding government and commercial operators authorized to operate UAS in the national airspace and require UAS operators to reveal additional information about the location, timing, and purpose of UAS flights.

Although passage of the bill will likely be an uphill battle with reconciliation with the House-passed bill and the President’s signature as next steps to enactment, the Senate’s bipartisan passage of the bill still represents a major step forward in the creation of a concerted regulatory regime for UAS in the U.S.