FAA Reauthorization Key to U.S. Competitiveness in UAS Industry

August 17, 2018

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Despite an abbreviated August recess, the Senate has a long legislative to-do list before September 30, when government funding and a number of authorizations – including Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorities – expire with the end of the fiscal year.

Pending FAA reauthorization legislation is seen as critical to advancing the commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) industry in the United States, particularly since technology has advanced dramatically since Congress last passed a sweeping aviation policy bill in 2012. In the meantime, other nations are moving ahead with forward-leaning policies to advance UAS integration and attract investment in this technology.  

Congress is under pressure from businesses seeking to leverage UAS technology to enact FAA reauthorization legislation as a means of providing certainty for the continued growth and utilization of UAS in the United States. Commercial UAS operators and manufacturers, as well as end users across industries – from oil and gas to agriculture and transportation and infrastructure – are seeking a progressive policy framework that will encourage continued innovation.

So Close, Yet so Far?

Since 2012, Congress has adopted a series of short-term FAA extensions, most recently this past 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 complete a conference to negotiate the differences with the House-passed legislation in time to send the President a bill for his signature before September 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, a number of key UAS-related issues remain to be addressed 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. Senators Heller (R-NV), Cortez Masto (D-NV), and Warner (D-VA) have offered an amendment to further shape a FAA-NASA UTM pilot program that is underway and move towards implementation. The amendment is included in a manager’s package of non-controversial amendments that Chairman Thune plans to move forward, but differs in several key ways from a UTM provision in the House bill.

Congress has 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 Johnson (R-WI) and Ranking Member McCaskill (D-MO) to extend similar authorities to the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice is included Chairman Thune’s proposed manager’s package. No such provision is included in the House-passed bill, but House Homeland Security Committee Chairman McCaul (R-TX) 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 remain to be addressed, 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. Other countries are expediting new laws and regulations to attract investment and innovation in UAS technology.

As September 30 rapidly approaches, U.S. competitiveness hangs in the balance.