U.S. Congress may be entering the home stretch in its efforts to pass a five-year, comprehensive reauthorization of the FAA. Competing versions of the reauthorization were introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate last summer, but the measures were sidetracked.

This week, a newer, smaller version of the House bill was introduced, and it no longer contains provisions for the privatization of air traffic control. This bill should have an easier time getting passed, as it has bipartisan backing of the leadership of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and its six subcommittees.

The bill has a number of provisions that affect the use of unmanned aircraft, including:

  • Authority for the FAA to set up a risk-based permitting system for UAS operations. The provision sets out the risks the FAA should consider, and requires the FAA to confirm whether the proposed operation’s safety level is equivalent to that of flights governed under formal regulations or exemptions. The statute makes any permits valid for five years and requires the FAA to process applications within 120 days. The statute also permits the FAA to waive the requirement that aircrafts have an airworthiness certificate or that the pilot has an airman certificate.
  • A requirement that the FAA initiates rulemaking within 18 months for certification of low altitude air navigation facilities, including unmanned traffic management (UTM) below 400 feet and low altitude communication, navigation, and surveillance (CNS) for aircraft operations that occur below 400 feet.
  • Authority to permit operation of certain UTM and CNS systems prior to the completion of notice and comment rulemaking.
  • Changes to the Special Rule for Model Aircraft prohibiting operation of model aircraft within 500 feet of an amusement park and permitting educational flights to be conducted as model aircraft operations rather than as commercial UAS operations – regardless of whether there is compensation or economic benefit involved.
  • A detailed definition for what constitutes a community-based organization (CBO) for purposes of overseeing model aircraft operations as well as a requirement that the FAA establish a process for recognizing legitimate CBOs.
  • A requirement that the FAA issue a final rule within one year that establishes a small UAS air carrier certificate and authorizes the carriage of property for compensation or hire (i.e., package delivery).
  • A requirement that the FAA establish within 60 days an aviation rulemaking committee (ARC) to make recommendations about the operation of micro-UAS, which the statute defines as aircraft weighing less than 4.4 pounds. The statute also requires a final rule for micro-UAS within 180 days after receiving recommendations from the ARC.
  • A requirement that the Secretary of Transportation consult with state and local governments and other federal agencies to identify potential reductions in privacy caused by the integration of UAS into the national airspace system.
  • A requirement that the Department of Transportation inspector general study the appropriate role of state, local and tribal governments in the regulation of the airspace below 400 feet.
  • A requirement that the Comptroller General of the U.S. study the “appropriate fee mechanism to recover the costs of” regulating UAS and providing air navigation services to unmanned aircraft.

The bipartisan nature of this bill increases the likelihood that it will pass the House. The question then becomes what changes, if any, the Senate will require so that it too solicits the votes necessary for passage.