FAA Extension Emphasizes Drone Safety to Protect Airports and Emergency Responders

The FAA Extension (Safety and Security Act of 2016) passed just before Congress’ longest recess in decades, included a small helping of policy changes and patches to tide the FAA over until Congress’ next run at reauthorization in September 2017.

In the wake of recent terrorist attacks in the U.S. and Europe, aviation security took center stage. TSA PreCheck and long wait times became the favorite talking point on the Hill for policymakers like Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) throughout the summer, giving a news “hook” to keep the FAA bill on the public agenda.

Meanwhile, language dedicated to unmanned aerial systems (UASs, or drones) buried in the middle of the bill largely slipped under the public radar.

This language was especially timely, given that near collisions between drones and commercial aircraft have increased dramatically in past years. As a result, the FAA has made efforts to document UAS sightings that occur near airports, helicopters, and airplanes – the latest release of this data lists 582 incidents of varying severity across the six-month period from August 2015-January 2016.

Recognizing drones as a growing threat to aviation safety, the FAA partnered with the Department of Homeland Security and CACI International to test UAS detection technology at the beginning of this year. This research, conducted at Atlantic City International Airport (ACY), was the first of its kind in a commercial airport environment.

Using radio frequency technology, CACI’s prototype – dubbed SkyTracker – “successfully identified, detected, and tracked UAS in flight, and precisely located drone ground operators – all without interfering with airport ground operations,” according to an FAA press release.

The authors of the FAA extension legislation were in a bind – they needed to address urgent, time-sensitive concerns about UAS policy, but they also wanted to save some of the debate for next year in order to keep public attention focused on the need to pass a larger, long-term FAA reauthorization bill. The key provisions of the UAS sections of the new extension law included sections devoted to public safety, firefighting and emergency response, and air traffic harmonization.

Public Safety

The primary theme throughout the UAS portion of the bill was public safety. Notably, the only UAS program that managed to receive funding was a $6 million pilot project to test technology that will prevent reckless or malicious drone operators from interfering with safe airport operations.

Key provisions include:

  • Initiating a $6 million pilot project for preventing “errant or hostile” drones from interfering with safe airport operations. This project will likely expand on CACI’s SkyTracker by empowering airport authorities to detect and hijack unauthorized UAS in their airspace. The FAA will cooperate with the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Homeland Security to test this technology. Following passage of the bill, the FAA was given 18 months – meaning January 15th, 2018 – to submit a classified report on its findings. ( 2206)
  • Conducting comprehensive testing on the potential outcomes of drone collisions with various types and sizes of manned aircraft. This includes jet aircraft, propeller-driven aircraft, and helicopters – the research will provide a thorough analysis of how a UAS collision with various parts of the manned aircraft (e.g. windshields, engines, wings) would impact its ability to fly. ( 2212)
  • Directing the FAA to establish standards for remotely identifying drones in collaboration with the Secretary of Transportation, the President of RTCA, Inc., and the Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The intent is “to facilitate the development of consensus standards for remotely identifying operators and owners of unmanned aircraft systems and associated unmanned aircraft.” ( 2202)

Firefighting and Emergency Response

Following a series of high-profile incidents where recreational drones interfered with firefighting efforts in Oregon and California, restrictions on operations near wildfires were of particular concern to House Transportation and Infrastructure Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and other western legislators. After shepherding the bill through the House, the Oregon Congressman stated: “this legislation includes victories for Oregon and Western communities that battle wildfires every summer.”

To this end, parts of the new law were written in the interest of:

  • Facilitating interagency cooperation in firefighting operations and utility restoration between the FAA, Secretary of Interior, and Secretary of Agriculture to maximize safe UAS operations and support in relevant efforts. ( 2204)
  • Establishing a maximum civil penalty of $20,000 for “knowingly or recklessly [interfering] with a wildfire suppression, law enforcement, or emergency response effort.” ( 2205)

Air Traffic Harmonization

Legislators have begun to acknowledge drones are here to stay, and as a result there is a growing interest in harmonizing air traffic within the full “ecosystem” of manned and unmanned aircraft.

In this sense, Congress and the FAA are focusing on telling recreational pilots where they can’t fly, instead of telling them where they can. This enables the FAA to focus on preventing interferences with airport operations and protecting restricted areas rather than enforcing a wide swath of regulations.

At the same time, the final provision in the list below will allow drones to be used for safely maintaining and repairing infrastructure and pipelines through establishing a permitting process.

The air traffic harmonization provisions entail:

  • Directing the FAA and NASA to develop a pilot program for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management (UTM), with a 240 day deadline to deliver a research plan to Congress and make it publicly available online. ( 2208)
  • Creating a process for fixed facilities to apply for “no drone zone” designations. Eligible entities include amusement parks, stadiums, power plants, critical infrastructure, or other instances where public safety and/or homeland security are pressing concerns. ( 2209)
  • Allowing entities to apply for permits to operate drones in order to maintain and repair pipelines and critical infrastructure. Applicants may also request permission to use UAVs to prepare or respond to natural disasters. ( 2210)

Moving Forward

Given that this year’s extension kicked the can down the road for another year on the FAA Reauthorization and that we’re speeding towards the post-election lame duck session, it is highly unlikely that any more inroads will be made on drone-specific legislation until the next Congress. However, it is possible that some provisions may be inserted in the all-but-guaranteed omnibus appropriations legislation at the end of this year.

The Administration will likely spend the final several months of the year checking off the last items on their wish list and conducting some regulatory housecleaning. This was exemplified in Administrator Huerta’s speech at the AUVSI annual conference on July 1st, when he announced the establishment of the FAA Drone Advisory Committee and clarified that students are permitted to fly drones as part of their coursework.


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