Don’t Ground Drones Before the Industry Takes Off

Americans are intrigued by the idea of delivery packages no longer arriving to their doorstep by van, but via the sky. Wall Street is abuzz by the countless prospects of an emerging multi-billion-dollar industry. And regulators are grappling with how to safely harness yet encourage its potential. We are in the nascent stages of unmanned aircraft systems — or drones — completely transforming how we do business, deliver services, and transport people. It is an exciting and unchartered era; one we must allow to take off.

Reminiscent of the first Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, this Technological Revolution of the 21st century is reshaping the economic and cultural landscape for generations. As smartphones and social media have reinvented telecommunications, drones are remaking myriad commercial industries from agriculture and infrastructure to energy and entertainment. For private businesses and public agencies already utilizing drones, efficiency increases while being cost-effective. Wide-scale deployment and endless opportunities are on the not-too-distant horizon.

Since 1926, the federal government has served as manager of the National Air Space and, in the past decade, Congress has charged the Federal Aviation Administration with researching, developing and testing drone operations in the system. Federal safety regulators are currently working with the UAS industry to resolve some of the most vexing challenges including integration with commercial airliners, beyond line of sight use, nighttime operations, and flights over people.

As the past chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee and author of the 2012 law requiring UAS integration, I instilled the FAA with this authority because only the federal government — working with industry — has the resources and expertise necessary to safely accomplish the monumental task at hand. Bipartisan majorities in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate agreed. A new proposal by Utah Sen. Mike Lee, however, would unwind current law and the significant progress made towards integration under the guise of each state’s sovereign right.

As a Republican, I generally view Washington-driven edicts with skepticism and most federal mandates as overreach. For many public policy issues facing our country, deference to states’ rights is appropriate. The diversity of each state, from its physical landscape to its cultural heritage and political makeup, reaffirms that a one-size-fits-all approach is not the solution in the United States. However, this is not an absolute and, specific sectors like transportation, require a holistic approach.

Just last year the Republican-controlled Congress imposed a federal standard that superseded various state regulations to protect interstate commerce and system users, this time for commercial fishing vessels. In 2006, a federal court in California ruled that the release of ballast water, deck wash, rain runoff and other incidental discharges from commercial vessels less than 79 feet in length must be regulated under the Clean Water Act. Twenty-eight states subsequently added their own and often contradictory regulations.

Thus, a tour boat operator traveling down the Potomac would be subject to competing regulations from multiple states and several federal agencies as it passed Washington D.C., all because rain water from a storm washed off its deck. Compounding the legal quandary, daily fines of up to $32,000 per vessel would have been imposed if Congress had not agreed to a permanent moratorium – an agreement with broad bipartisan support even from staunch states’ rights advocates.

The next battle over federalism has us looking to the skies, far below the clouds. Forty-four states have already passed legislation impacting UAS operations, ranging from simple studies to strict limitations of use. If left as a patchwork of state regulations and local prerogatives – as Sen. Lee’s bill would codify – businesses and users will not be able to legitimately operate drones without fear of legal repercussions and financial loss. The American economy at large would have no measurable benefit despite this revolutionary technology.

Many public policy initiatives are best left to the states to decide — regulating the national air space is not one. The FAA and its federal partners are best suited to continue to oversee the safe integration of drones at any and all altitudes. The air space — like rivers — traverses across localities without being confined to boundaries. Varying standards for UAS operation from state to state or county to county or, conceivably, town to town would stunt most commercial or recreational uses this technology has to offer. In emergencies, life-saving operations such as disaster response and medical transport would be hindered. Drones cannot benefit where they cannot fly; we must not ground this opportunity before it even takes flight.

The Hon. Frank LoBiondo is the former chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee and now CEO of LoBo Strategies LLC.

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