On October 5, 2018, President Donald Trump signed into law the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018. In addition to a variety of security and safety improvements intended to benefit airline passengers and modernize aviation rules, Congress legislated significant changes for the regulation of small unmanned aircraft system (UAS) operations.
The drone industry has been wanting and waiting for the FAA to move towards integrating drones into national airspace, the latest FAA Reauthorization Bill of 2018 may be the legislation needed to accelerate UAS integration. The bill contains many important provisions for the commercial UAS industry and recreational drone pilots.
One key piece of legislation included in the FAA Reauthorization Bill is the ‘‘Preventing Emerging Threats Act of 2018’’(previously S. 2836) which gives the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DoJ) authority to counter drones that pose a “credible threat” to “covered facilities or assets.”
What actions can they take?
The types of action approved personnel, in coordination with the Department of Transportation (DOT), can take against a UAS include the ability to detect, track, disrupt, seize, or destroy the UAS, as necessary. Basically, this legislation allows approved personnel to use drone jammers, brute force, or any means required to disable threatening drones.
What is a covered facility or asset?
This section defines “covered facility or asset” as those described by the Secretary of Homeland Security or the Attorney General, in coordination with DOT and relating to any of the following missions:
U.S. Customs and Border Protection security or protection operations; US Secret Service protection operations; Federal Protective Service protection of DHS facilities; US Marshals and FBI protection of personnel; DOJ and BOP protection of high-risk facilities; National Special Security Events designated by the Secretary of Homeland Security; Special Event Assessment Rating Events; when a state governor requests assistance for a mass gathering event that would not otherwise fall into the security for special event category; and active Federal law enforcement investigations, emergency responses, or security operations carried out by DHS or DOJ.
Another important provision is the removal of Special Rule 336 for recreational drones, which exempts hobbyist from FAA regulation. According to the new law, recreation drone pilots must pass “an aeronautical knowledge and safety test” and maintain “proof of test passage to be made available to the Administrator or law enforcement upon request.” As stated in the bill, the aeronautical knowledge and safety test should be available no later than 180 days from enactment.
A further noticeable change for the recreational use of drones deals with flight near airports. It appears the new law replaced the 5-mile restriction with a rule requiring prior authorization from the airspace administrator if you are flying in airspace other than Class G.
‘‘(5) In Class B, Class C, or Class D airspace or within the lateral boundaries of the surface area of Class E airspace designated for an airport, the operator obtains prior authorization from the Administrator or designee before operating and complies with all airspace restrictions and prohibitions. ‘‘(6) In Class G airspace, the aircraft is flown from the surface to not more than 400 feet above ground level and complies with all airspace restrictions and prohibitions.”
The FAA released this notice to hobby pilots asking hobbyist to “please continue to follow all current policies and guidance with respect to the recreational use of drones” while the agency figures out how to implement the new changes.
Other notable developments:
UAS Traffic Management - UTM (Section 376, 377)
Directs the FAA to develop a plan to allow for the implementation of UAS traffic management (UTM) services.
Remote ID (Section 372, 376)
Directed the FAA to establish a pilot program to test remote detection or identification technologies for safety oversight, including enforcement actions against operators of UAS that are not in compliance with applicable Federal aviation laws, including regulations. Also part of the comprehensive UTM plan.
Prohibits Weaponized Drones (Section 363)
Unless authorized, anyone operating a UAS equipped or armed with a dangerous weapon is subject to a civil penalty of up to $25,00 for each offense.
Tethered UAS (Section 346)
The bill makes a distinction between tethered UAS and free-flying UAS,l allowing tethered drones to operate without certifications or waivers.
Drone Deliveries (Section 348)
Directs the FAA to update existing regulations authorizing carriage of property by UAS for within the United States not later than one year after the date of enactment.
Integration Pilot Program (Section 351)
The legislation codifies the “Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program” into law. It requires the DOT to notify Congress before initiating any additional rounds of agreements under this pilot program.
The bill has faced criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) with concerns it gives government agencies too much power over privately owned drones and endangers the First and Fourth Amendment rights to freedom of speech and protection from warrantless device seizures. Other critics include the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), which wanted to keep the special rule 336 for recreational drone pilots.
Despite the criticism, the FAA Reauthorization Act has been widely applauded by drone industry leaders and government agencies. Many in the industry have been championing for these provisions as they see them as the necessary next steps for expansion.
The FAA Reauthorization Bill of 2018 provides the pathway towards safe and efficient integration of UAS into the national airspace. This 5-year budgetary bill helps solidify plans and procedural steps to move UAS integration forward by including developments such as UTM, Remote ID, privacy reporting, and enforcement.
For more information on each section, the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation website provides a very thorough section-by section H.R. 302 Bill summary that is much easier to digest than the 1,207-page full bill text.