Readers of Plane-ly Spoken are well aware of the twisting, and sometime torturous path, that FAA reauthorization takes. Competing versions of the reauthorization were introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate last summer. Both bills, each weighing in at over 400 pages, got sidetracked during the fall, resulting in yet another short term extension.

Now, however, efforts to pass a comprehensive, five year reauthorization of the FAA may finally be entering the home stretch. This week, a new version of the House bill, slimmed down to only 353 pages and omitting the controversial proposal to privatize air traffic control, has been introduced. 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. These include:

  • 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 find that the proposed operation has an equivalent level of safety to flights under formal regulations or exemptions. The statute makes any permits valid for 5 years and requires the FAA to process applications within 120 days. The statute also permits the FAA to waive the requirement that an aircraft have an airworthiness certificate or that the pilot have an airman certificate.
  • A requirement that the FAA initiate a 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’ of an amusement park, and permitting educational flights to be conducted as model aircraft operation 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, and a requirement that the FAA establish a process for recognizing legitimate CBOs.
  • A requirement that the FAA issue a final rule within one year establishing a small UAS air carrier certificate and authorize the carriage of property for compensation or hire (i.e. package delivery).
  • A requirement that, within 60 days, the FAA establish an aviation rulemaking committee to make recommendations on operation of micro-UAS, which the statute defines as an aircraft under 4.4 pounds. The statute also requires a final rule for micro-UAS within 180 days after receiving the ARCs recommendations.
  • A requirement that the Secretary of Transportation consult with state and local governments and other federal agencies to identify potential reductions to privacy caused by integration of UAS into the national airspace system.
  • A requirement that the DOT 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 study the “appropriate fee mechanism to recover the costs of” regulation of UAS and the provision of air navigation services to unmanned aircraft.

Given that this bill is bipartisan, it appears likely that the House will be able to pass it. The question then becomes what changes, if any, the Senate will require in order to get the votes necessary to pass.