Despite an abbreviated August recess, the Senate must complete a long legislative to-do list before Sept. 30, when government funding and a number of authorizations — including Federal Aviation Administration authorities — expire with the end of the fiscal year.
Pending legislation to reauthorize FAA is seen as critical to advancing the commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) industry in the United States, particularly since technology has advanced dramatically since 2012, when Congress last passed a sweeping aviation policy bill. In the meantime, other nations are moving ahead with forward-leaning policies to advance UAS integration and attract investment in this technology.
Businesses seeking to leverage UAS technology are pressuring Congress to enact the legislation to provide certainty for the continued growth and utilization of UAS in the United States. Commercial UAS operators and manufacturers, and end users across industries — from oil and gas, to agriculture and transportation and infrastructure — seek a progressive policy framework that will encourage continued innovation.
Since 2012, Congress has adopted a series of short-term FAA extensions, most recently in March. After several years of delays attributable to a controversial proposal to corporatize Air Traffic Control (ATC), the House voted 393-13 in April to pass its long-term reauthorization bill, H.R.4. The Senate seemed poised to move ahead with its largely noncontroversial bipartisan bill, S.1405, soon thereafter, but that was not the case.
Instead, it’s unclear whether there will be enough floor time for the Senate to take up and pass its bill and negotiate the differences with the House-passed legislation in time to send the president a bill for his signature before Sept. 30. As the Senate continues to process appropriations bills and the November midterm elections inch closer, another short-term extension remains a real possibility.
If the Senate does take up S.1405, it must confront a number of key UAS-related issues on the floor and in conference.
As introduced, the bill does not address unmanned traffic management (UTM), the system that will enable safe, secure integration and the types of advanced autonomous UAS operations that are critical to the commercial use of this technology. Sens. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) have offered an amendment to further shape an FAA-NASA UTM pilot program that is underway and move toward implementation. The amendment is included in a manager’s package of noncontroversial amendments that Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) plans to move forward, but it differs in several key ways from a UTM provision in the House bill.
Congress previously authorized the departments of Defense and Energy to utilize limited UAS countermeasures operations typically prohibited by federal law. A bill offered by Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) and Ranking Member Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) to extend similar authorities to the departments of Homeland Security and Justice is included in Chairman Thune’s proposed manager’s package. No such provision is included in the House-passed bill, but House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) has since introduced similar legislation that underscores bicameral, bipartisan support for moving forward.
The 2012 reauthorization allows the FAA to regulate only commercial UAS. With an eye toward resolving the issue in conference, the House adopted two competing and conflicting floor amendments to expand the FAA’s authority to regulate UAS. The underlying Senate bill does not definitively resolve the issue, and it is expected to be addressed in conference.
A number of other key issues still remain, but when or whether FAA reauthorization moves forward will strongly influence the trajectory of the commercial UAS industry and the application of this technology across industries in the United States. Meanwhile, other countries are expediting new laws and regulations to attract investment and innovation in UAS technology.
As Sept. 30 rapidly approaches, U.S. competitiveness hangs in the balance.