US-Senate-GreatSeal.svgIn a 95-3 vote, lawmakers approved an amended bill that would greenlight FAA programs through fiscal 2017. The agency’s current legal authority expires on July 15. Senators spent two weeks debating the measure and added over 19 amendments on the floor and 57 in committee.

The Senate overwhelmingly passed a long-term reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday, kicking the measure over to the House, where similar efforts have stalled.

“To get to this point has been no small task,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The bill would address drone safety and privacy issues, with Nelson highlighting a provision that would establish a pilot program to test and develop technologies to intercept or shut down drones if they get too close to airports.

Bill sponsors hope Tuesday’s strong vote increases pressure across the Capitol to swiftly advance the Senate’s version.

“We hope our counterparts in the House will take up and pass this bill without delay,” Nelson said. “We’ve given them a good, bipartisan blueprint.”

The Senate vote was on April 20. Perhaps because of the complexity of the issue, the reporting on this has been somewhat spotty with precious little detail about what is actually included. We’ll try to add some detail.
FIRST it is important to understand that all that happened is that the Senate passed its version of the House bill which the House shelved awhile ago. To be very clear, the Senate bill is not law.
The House version of the FAA Reauthorization bill, H.R. 636 includes something called the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act. This is legislation which would establish an independent, not-for-profit corporation, outside of the federal government, to modernize and provide U.S. air traffic control (ATC) services.
The primary reason that the House stopped work on the bill is that AIRR is a political hot potato of epic dimensions. While it may well be an idea whose time will come, it apparently hasn’t yet. In their infinite wisdom, the Senate leadership recognized a train wreck when they saw one and did not include the AIRR provision in their version of the bill.
So now H.R. 636  goes back to the House. The two versions of the bill – House and Senate – must then be combined (reconciled) for there to be a law. So while this in principal is good for drones, UAVs, RPAS’ and the like, it is certainly not a done deal.
Because inquiring minds want to know, I went and looked at the Library of Congress Thomas report that tracks these things. Again these are Senate amendments to House bill, H.R. 636. This is sausage making at its finest, there were 341 amendments in total, the vast majority of which never made it to a vote.
Here are four that are of interest to readers – there are probably others. Click away, you can get all the way down to actual language.

36. S.AMDT.3492 to H.R.636 Relating to the operation of unmanned aircraft systems by owners and operators of critical infrastructure.
Sponsor: Sen Inhofe, James M. [OK] (introduced 4/6/2016)      Cosponsors (5)
Latest Major Action: 4/11/2016 Senate amendment agreed to. Status: Amendment SA 3492 as modified agreed to in Senate by Voice Vote.

44. S.AMDT.3500 to H.R.636 To provide for a 5-year extension of the unmanned aircraft system test site program.
Sponsor: Sen Hoeven, John [ND] (introduced 4/6/2016)      Cosponsors (12)
Latest Major Action: 4/11/2016 Senate amendment agreed to. Status: Amendment SA 3500 agreed to in Senate by Voice Vote.

56. S.AMDT.3512 to H.R.636 To enhance airport security, and for other purposes.
Sponsor: Sen Thune, John [SD] (introduced 4/6/2016)      Cosponsors (3)
Latest Major Action: 4/7/2016 Senate amendment agreed to. Status: Amendment SA 3512 as modified agreed to in Senate by Yea-Nay Vote. 85 – 10. Record Vote Number: 41.

111. S.AMDT.3567 to H.R.636 To require the Federal Aviation Administration to coordinate with the Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems with respect to research relating to unmanned aircraft systems.
Sponsor: Sen Cochran, Thad [MS] (introduced 4/11/2016)      Cosponsors (2)
Latest Major Action: 4/11/2016 Senate amendment agreed to. Status: Amendment SA 3567 agreed to in Senate by Voice Vote.

So far the only reaction from the House has been from Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) who along with Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) introduced the idea of spinning off the ATC. Somewhat predictably (churlishly?) he said:

“I appreciate the work of the Senate and Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) in moving an FAA bill,” he said in a statement. “We will take a look at the completed product, but in the House, we will continue to push forward with the AIRR Act.”

Industry reaction is mixed. UAV Expert News from which much of the above was taken headlined their story, 95-3 Vote, Lawmakers Continue To Over Regulate which I found very amusing. Rotor & Wing posted on Monday 4/19 and reported a slightly different set of facts which makes it clear that the Senate recognizes a deep, dark hole when they see one:

The U.S. Senate voted 89-5 to end the debate toward a final vote on its comprehensive FAA reauthorization bill Monday evening.

It was scheduled to reconvene its weeks-long debate over Calendar #55, H.R. 636, the legislative vehicle for FAA reauthorization. It also had set a voting deadline to conclude the debate.

Passage of the bill has been slowed by its large collection of amendments. So far, 19 of the bill’s more than 330 amendments have been passed, including a few related to drone safety and airport security. Two dozen others were expected to surface for a vote yesterday before the scheduled cutoff.

Michael Drobac speaking for the Small UAV Coalition was sanguine noting that:

“We are extremely pleased that the Senate voted to pass legislation reauthorizing the FAA which included forward-leaning provisions related unmanned aerials systems (UAS). These provisions increase safety and accountability, which are critical as the U.S. moves towards a regulatory framework that will expedite the safe and widespread integration of small UAS into the National Airspace System.

Time is of the essence as other countries continue to utilize this technology in ways the U.S. cannot due to regulatory and legal barriers.

Other publications were giddier. For example, PC Magazine wrote that:

Legislation passed by the U.S. Senate could pave the way for the commercial deployment of drones in the national airspace, besides addressing safety issues by, for example, providing for a pilot that would find ways to lock down errant drones if they are close to airports.

The new rules in the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2016, passed Tuesday by a vote of 95-3, reflect the opportunities seen in the country for the use of drones both for commercial and other applications such as in emergencies. They also highlight privacy and safety concerns about the reckless use of consumer drones by hobbyists.



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