Senate Bill Approves Package Delivery by Drone

On April 19, 2016, the full Senate of the United States passed the “Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2016” (“FAA Act”), which had been previously passed by the full House of Representatives in February, 2016.  The FAA Act contains several notable provisions, the first of which, Section 2142, regarding federal preemption of local drone regulations, was approved by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on March 17, 2016, and reported in this publication on March 31.  

The FAA Act, as finally approved by the Senate, devotes substantial additional space to unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS”), and, most notably for this purpose, Section 2141, “Carriage of Property by Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems for Compensation or Hire.”  (Section 2141 will be codified in the main body of the legislation at Section 44812.)  That provision was clearly authored by Amazon, which has made considerable noise about the capability of UAS to deliver its products expeditiously and at low cost.  The FAA Act gives the Secretary of Transportation two years to issue a final rule authorizing the carrying of property by operations of small UAS within the United States.  
 
The requirement for the contents of the final rule is, however, clearly specified in the Act.  
 

First, each carrier of property will be required to obtain a “Small Unmanned Aircraft System Air Carrier Certificate” which must include:  

A. Consideration the unique characteristics of highly automated unmanned aircraft systems; and
 
B. Minimum requirements for safe operations, including
 
(i) Confirmation of airworthiness;
 
(ii) Qualifications of operators; and
 
(iii) Operating specifications.
 
In addition, the FAA Act requires a process for issuance “that is performance based and ensures required safety levels are met.”  Section 44812(b)(2).  Specifically, the Bill requires the certification process to consider:
 
A. The safety risks of operating UAS around other UAS and over persons and property on the ground;
 
B. Competencies and compliance” of manufacturers, operators, and parts manufacturers of UAS; and
 
C. Compliance with requirements established in other sections of the legislation.
 
Finally, the legislation establishes a “small unmanned aircraft system air carrier classification” to “establish economic authority for the carriage of property,” Section 44812(b)(3), which only requires registration with the Department of Transportation, and a valid Small Unmanned Aircraft System Air Carrier Certificate issued pursuant to the legislation.  
 
Clearly, there is much more involved in assessing the readiness of UAS to transport packages over inhabited areas.  Only the final rule will reveal the full scope of the regulation that may be necessary to monitor and control a proliferating industry. 
 

 

Amazon Prime Air

Amazon has announced it will use unmanned aircraft systems to deliver packages.  But how soon?  Westlaw Journal Aviation quoted Barbara Lichman and Paul Fraidenburgh today in an article entitled “The FAA’s recent notice and Amazon drone delivery.”  

Commercial vs. Recreational Drones: Are Existing Regulations Backwards?

A problem with the regulatory philosophy towards unmanned aircraft systems is quickly coming into view.  While foreign and domestic governments are investing time and money developing strict standards for commercial drone use, the more pressing threat of recreational use has largely escaped the regulatory spotlight.

 
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) finalized two reports last week that shed some light on the perils of recreational drone use.  The first report describes a near collision of a passenger plane with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) near Perth Airport in Western Australia.  While approaching the airport for landing, the crew “sighted a bright strobe light directly in front of the aircraft,” reports the ATSB.  The UAV tracked towards the aircraft and the pilot was forced to take evasive action, dodging the UAV by about 20 meters.  The ATSB has been unable to locate or identify the operator of the UAV, which was flying in restricted airspace at the time of the incident.
 
The second report describes another near collision with a recreational drone just three days later in the airspace over Newcastle, the second most populated city in the Australian state of New South Wales.  In that incident, the crew of a rescue helicopter spotted a UAV hovering over Hunter Stadium during an Australian football match.  The UAV tracked towards the helicopter as the helicopter began its descent.  The ATSB’s report was supplemented with a comment by Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), which explained that the UAV appeared to be a “first person view” vehicle that was transmitting a live video feed back to its operator.  In other words, the operator was watching the game.  Neither the venue nor the official broadcaster took or authorized any aerial footage of the game.  CASA noted that over 90% of complaints received about UAVs relate to incidents caused by first person view drones.
 
Though these reports come from halfway around the world, they highlight a flaw in the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) approach to the use of drones in American airspace.  The FAA subjects commercial drone users to strict regulations arising from traditional “aircraft used in commerce” standards while applying the more liberal “model aircraft” standards to recreational drone users.  (See 14 C.F.R. § 91.119 [requiring aircraft used in commerce to stay at 500 feet or more in altitude above rural areas and 1,000 feet above urban areas].)  The FAA staunchly defended this system in its appeal of the Pirker case, in which the FAA seeks to overturn the decision of an administrative law judge who ruled the FAA had no regulatory authority when it fined the operator of a drone used for commercial photography.  So does it make sense for the FAA to take a hard stance towards commercial drones and a more liberal stance towards recreational drone users?
 
Probably not.  Here’s why:

  

Google, Facebook, and Amazon are among the companies preparing to use drones in the ordinary course of their businesses.  Google and Facebook plan to blanket the earth with internet access and Amazon plans to deliver packages.  These companies have invested millions of dollars not only to develop commercial drone technology, but to monitor the pulse of the regulatory environment for commercial drones.  When the FAA finally issues its new drone regulations (due by September 2015), these companies will have teams of attorneys prepared to advise on how they can legally and safely mobilize their fleets.
 
Unlike commercial drone users, recreational drone users are extremely difficult to regulate.  The person flying a drone over the football game is unlikely to be as responsive to the new regulations as Amazon or Google.  Recreational drone users do not have the same profit-driven concerns as commercial users, meaning they have less incentive to monitor and comply with current regulations.  Remember, recreational drone users, by definition, are just having fun.  They may not even know what the FAA is.  The activities of recreational drone users are also more difficult to monitor.  Combined with the increasing availability and affordability of drones, recreational drone users will pose a far greater threat to safety in the air and on the ground than the Googles and Amazons of the world.
 
With the highly anticipated new drone regulations due out within the next 15 months, only time will tell whether the FAA will correct its disproportionate treatment of commercial and recreational drone users.