view of US Capital at dusk

Extension represents missed opportunity for Congress to support UAS industry growth.

With current FAA authorization set to expire on July 15, Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee leaders announced last night that they reached an agreement to extend FAA authorities through September 30, 2017. Today, the full text of the agreement was released. The House is expected to pass it later this week, with the Senate likely following suit next week before both chambers adjourn on July 15 for party conventions and the August recess, returning after Labor Day.

The extension [FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016] was necessary because House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) was unable to secure enough support for his proposal to privatize Air Traffic Control (ATC) for House leadership to bring his long-term FAA reauthorization bill to the floor. Under the bipartisan leadership of Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD) and Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL), the Senate passed a comprehensive reauthorization bill that did not include ATC reform in April, 95-3.

Given the fact that the House would have likely easily passed a reauthorization bill that did not include the controversial ATC proposal, it is also unfortunate that rather than setting aside the one measure preventing a bipartisan long-term reauthorization, Congress resorted to an extension and sacrificed many urgently needed provisions impacting both consumers and stakeholders across the aviation industry.

Both reauthorization bills included bipartisan robust UAS subtitles that direct the FAA to take a more forward-leaning and expeditious approach to developing a UAS regulatory framework under which the industry can grow and thrive while meeting the highest safety standards. Many of these provisions had strong, bipartisan support.

With the air travel experience at an all time low thanks to TSA’s ineptness, and the FAA about to go bingo, the Congress got back to doing their jobs long enough to offer some much-needed direction on a wide range of aviation related topics. What was known as the FAA Reauthorization Bill of 2016 is now FESSA, The FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016. The press release that I am quoting is from the Small UAV Coalition. I am including the political calculus because I think it is interesting and I know that many of my readers live it every day.

Anyone who suggests that this is now a done deal has not done their homework.

If it has been awhile since your last PoliSci class, when a bill leaves committee, as FESSA just has, it has to be voted on by the full House and the Senate. Then, assuming it passes both chambers, it has to be signed into law by President Obama. All this needs to happen by July 15th or the FAA runs out of money. Simple as that… Hopefully the bill will not become a political football.
To up the chance of passage when the bill comes to the floor, Senator John Thune (R-SD) did a brilliant job tying the bill to the recent Istanbul airport massacre promising that the provisions in this bill would suddenly make the TSA awesome.
Good.
If you want a headline for the drone portion of the bill, the word is AGGRESSIVE.
The Congress is sending what can only be interpreted as a clear signal that they want action on a wide range of issues now, not at some time in the distant future. I believe that this sense of urgency reflects their understanding of how fast drone technology is moving and how much needs to be done.

There are 13 drone specific Aviation Safety Provisions under Subtitle B—UAS Safety in the 133-page bill.

This link is to the proposed final bill “Providing for the concurrence by the House in the Senate amendments to H.R. 636, with amendments.”
I have shortened the phrase “the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration” to FAA for your reading enjoyment. Most of the bill is written in simple English – don’t be afraid – this is your future taking shape.

SEC. 2202. IDENTIFICATION STANDARDS. The FAA, in consultation with the Secretary of Transportation, the President of RTCA, Inc., and the Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, shall convene industry stakeholders to facilitate the development of consensus standards for remotely identifying operators and owners of unmanned aircraft systems and associated unmanned aircraft.

I think the implications are considerable and could actually result in a meaningful registration system. The FAA has a year to come up with a plan. It is time for the manufacturers to step up.

SEC. 2203. SAFETY STATEMENTS. A manufacturer of a small unmanned aircraft shall make available to the owner at the time of delivery of the small unmanned aircraft the safety statement described in subsection (b)(2).

This is will end up as a thin sheet of paper printed on both sides somewhere in the box, where it will be all too easily ignored. A good idea but it’s not going to do the trick by itself. This is an opportunity for the consumer manufacturers and retailers to step up and add on. It is a significant educational opportunity.

SEC. 2204. FACILITATING INTERAGENCY COOPERATION FOR UNMANNED AIRCRAFT AUTHORIZATION IN SUPPORT OF FIREFIGHTING OPERATIONS AND UTILITY RESTORATION.

This specifically calls for cooperation between the FAA, the Departments of Agriculture, Interior and Energy and FEMA. It has to be seen as a win for use
case proponents.

SEC. 2205. INTERFERENCE WITH WILDFIRE SUPPRESSION, LAW ENFORCEMENT, OR EMERGENCY RESPONSE EFFORT BY OPERATION OF UNMANNED AIRCRAFT.

An all too familiar tune on these pages. Frankly, I am disappointed that there is a cap of $20,000 on the fine. One assumes that anyone who gets caught will also face criminal charges. If I read it correctly it is on the FAA to impose the penalty – this may be the teeth they have been looking for to go along with “reckless.” Assuming of course that the locals don’t hang the perps when they catch them.

SEC. 2206. PILOT PROJECT FOR AIRPORT SAFETY AND AIRSPACE HAZARD MITIGATION.

This gives the FAA 18 months and US$6M specifically earmarked from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund to come up with a report on the results of the pilot program and recommendations for safety and operational standards for unmanned aircraft detection systems. (Funding for the other Provisions is not specified.)
Seems to be very much in line with what we’ve been seeing in FAA testing with CECI, AUDS and others under Pathfinder, and the MITRE fly-off next month.

SEC. 2207. EMERGENCY EXEMPTION PROCESS. The FAA shall publish guidance for applications for, and procedures for the processing of, on an emergency basis, exemptions or certificates of authorization or waiver for the use of unmanned aircraft systems by civil or public operators in response to a catastrophe, disaster, or other emergency to facilitate emergency response operations, such as firefighting, search and rescue, and utility and infrastructure restoration efforts. In processing such applications, the Administrator shall give priority to applications for public unmanned aircraft systems engaged in emergency response activities.

This should please first responders and will force the FAA to set up a fast track system. If history is any guide this will then trickle down to the new 107 waiver system.

SEC. 2208. UNMANNED AIRCRAFT SYSTEMS TRAFFIC MANAGEMENT. (a) RESEARCH PLAN FOR UTM DEVELOPMENT AND DEPLOYMENT. The FAA, in coordination with NASA, shall continue development of a research plan for unmanned aircraft systems traffic management.

Again there is an aggressive timetable along with a specific reporting timetable to provide various Congressional committees with insight into progress.

SEC. 2209. APPLICATIONS FOR DESIGNATION. The Secretary of Transportation shall establish a process to allow applicants to petition the FAA to prohibit or restrict the operation of an unmanned aircraft in close proximity to a fixed site facility.

One assumes that all accepted petitions will end up on a map designated as no-fly zones – and be fed into the type of publicly available geo-fencing database that DJI has been campaigning for. Meanwhile, up goes the FAA workload.

SEC. 2210. OPERATIONS ASSOCIATED WITH CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE. Any application process established under section 333 of the FAA Modernization and 23 Reform Act of 2012 shall allow for a person to apply to the FAA to operate an unmanned aircraft for purposes of conducting an activity described 2 in subsection (b)—(1) beyond the visual line of sight of the individual operating the unmanned aircraft system; and (2) during the day or at night.

I am not sure how this works into Part 107 – if at all. Will keep an eye out for comments from the DC crowd since this will be of interest to some 333 holders.
As written this is specifically worded to address the needs of infrastructure owners and operators in verticals like pipelines and electrical grids. Along with railroads, these are the most likely users of BVLOS. They have the money and resources to develop the equipment and SOP’s necessary to secure waivers, and the financial incentive to do so.

SEC. 2211. UNMANNED AIRCRAFT SYSTEMS RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT ROADMAP. The roadmap shall include, at a minimum (A) cost estimates, planned schedules, and performance benchmarks, including specific tasks, milestones, and timelines, for unmanned aircraft systems integration into the national airspace system.

I read this as very good news since it requires long-term planning to achieve a clearly defined Holy Grail goal.

SEC. 2212. UNMANNED AIRCRAFT SYSTEMS-MANNED AIRCRAFT COLLISION RESEARCH. The FAA shall coordinate with NASA to develop a program  to conduct comprehensive testing or modeling of unmanned aircraft systems colliding with various sized aircraft in various operational settings.

This is sooooooooo long overdue. Now if they had only included human beings we might be able to make some sense of MicroARC.

SEC. 2213. PROBABILISTIC METRICS RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT STUDY. Not later than 30 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the FAA shall enter into an arrangement with the National Academies to study the potential use of probabilistic assessments of risks by the Administration to streamline the integration of unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system, including any research and development necessary.

Not sure who has what in mind but they are definitely in a hurry. My simplistic quick take here is that anything based on data is good.
There are a number of other provisions that are also of interest that I took from a Summary document provided by the Senate Commerce Committee.

Directs the FAA to establish a comprehensive and strategic framework to identify and address cybersecurity risks to the aviation system.

The timetable in the bill is extremely aggressive and the scope is very broad. Leaving out the part about the devil residing in the details, this can only be a good thing and definitely includes UAVs. One hopes that these considerations will be an integral part of the UTM program and BVLOS certification.

Requires the FAA to provide quarterly updates to Congress regarding the number of incidents involving laser pointers being aimed at aircraft, and the number of civil or criminal enforcement actions taken by federal authorities with regard to these incidents.

Given the uproar around drones and aircraft, it is amazing to me that drone “close calls” are not included in this requirement.
Under the heading of Aviation Security Provisions we find this welcome provision:

Expands the TSA PreCheck program by directing TSA to partner with the private sector to develop enhanced enrollment and vetting methods.

One can only hope that this approach will also be used to speed remote airman certifications.
This in no way should be considered the last word on the topic. Jonathan Rupprecht has announced that he will be breaking down each of the 13 Provisions saying:

“I am planning on writing an individual blog post for every listing in the FESSA text and my legal analysis of it. The reason why is there is a lot of material in the FESSA and making one “mega-post” would be very hard on readers.”

Here are his first comments hot off the press.
Hopefully, there will be news that the bill passed in the next edition of Dronin’ On.