FAA Reauthorization May Provide Speedier Flight Path for Drone Rules

The skies may soon get a little busier.

A congressional push to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration could lay the foundation for the widespread use of commercial drones.

A measure (S. 1314) introduced last month by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) that would allow businesses to operate drones within the line of site of a human operator may find its way into a broader FAA reauthorization package, according to Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), the lone cosponsor of Booker’s bill. Currently, companies must ask the FAA for permission to use drones on a case-by-case basis.

“That’s just the likely vehicle we would use,” Hoeven said of the reauthorization legislation in an interview Monday. “Clearly it’s germane, so I think we’d have a good shot of getting it. But I wouldn’t just take part of it, I’d include the full legislation.”

Hoeven’s deputy communications director, Kami Capener, said in an email that Hoeven would seek to offer the legislation as an amendment either during consideration by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee or on the Senate floor. So far, Booker’s bill is the only one in Congress that would expedite rules for commercial drones.

Drones are shaping up to be part of a larger conversation about the national airspace as Congress moves forward with efforts to reauthorize the FAA for the first time since 2012.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will mark up an FAA reauthorization bill in the coming weeks, according to Jason Galanes, deputy chief of staff for Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee.

While FAA legislation has yet to be introduced in the House, Galanes said that the bill would include a section dedicated to drones, and that LoBiondo hopes the House will consider the overall measure before the August recess. He declined to comment further on the forthcoming contents of the bill.

Congress is under pressure to act before the FAA’s authority expires on Sept. 30.

Lauren Hammond, a spokeswoman for the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said the panel had not yet scheduled a markup for FAA reauthorization legislation. No senator has introduced a reauthorization measure.

The FAA is in the midst of crafting rules that would allow for the widespread use of commercial drones. In the meantime, businesses must obtain specific permits to use drones. The rulemaking process may not be finished until February 2017 – two years after the proposed regulations were released – according to FAA spokesperson Les Dorr.

The agency has been criticized by some industry leaders who say regulators have been slow to integrate drones, also called unmanned aerial systems, into the national airspace despite receiving a mandate from Congress to do so in the 2012 reauthorization measure.

Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president for global public policy, told the Senate’s Aviation, Operations, Safety and Security Subcommittee in March that “the FAA is not adequately addressing compelling UAS applications.”

Booker’s bill would bypass the FAA while the agency develops regulations, implementing portions of February’s draft rules, such as the provision that drones must remain within the line of sight of a human operator.

In a statement last month, Booker stressed the need to expedite the rulemaking process.

“Right now, the U.S. is falling behind other countries because we lack rules for the safe operation of commercial UAS technology,” he said.

Booker’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an organization that advocates for the drone industry and counts companies like Google and Amazon among its members, said it supports the Booker bill.

Morning Consult