Senate FAA Reauthorization Bill Disappoints

This morning, the Senate Commerce Committee held a markup hearing on their Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2016 (S. 2658). A couple of positive unmanned aircraft system (UAS) amendments—a drone delivery amendment from Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and one from Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) establishing a micro UAS exemption of UAS under 4.4 pounds (2kg) from most FAA operations rules—but there is very little to like about the bill. One bright spot of the Senate’s bill, a lack of a nanny-state ban on voice communications aboard airliners, was amended away thanks to Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

The Senate bill has disappointed most aviation stakeholders. It fails to address the crisis in air traffic control, something the House’s AIRR Act tackles and something strongly supported by airlines, air traffic controllers, commercial pilots, and aviation policy researchers. But like the House’s AIRR Act, S. 2658 fails to reform airport financing by raising or uncapping the passenger facility charge, something strongly supported by airports, the travel industry, and free market organizations, and something that had nearly been included in the Senate bill until it was dropped at the last minute.

Most of the problems in the Senate bill are due to inaction, but drone hobbyists, students, and entrepreneurs have one reason to be especially upset: it may effectively outlaw homebrew UAS. While the Booker amendment noted above exempts UAS weighing less than 4.4 pounds (2kg) from most operating regulations, it does not address manufacturing.

Under Section 2124 of S. 2658, the FAA is ordered to “establish a process for the approval of small unmanned aircraft systems make and models.” It then prohibits “any person to introduce or deliver for introduction into interstate commerce any unmanned aircraft manufactured . . . unless the manufacturer has received approval . . . for each make and model.”

As drone lawyer Peter Sachs told John Goglia at Forbes, “the flight of any aircraft, whether built in a factory or in a basement, is a flight in interstate commerce.” How many potential modelers, students, and entrepreneurs will be deterred from tinkering with drones by the prospect of gaining FAA approval for each small UAS they wish to test operate? Certainly some number of them.

The safety fears behind this provision are also irrational. As Eli Dourado and Sam Hammond of the Mercatus Center write in a new report, micro UAS pose negligible risks to manned aircraft and people and property on the ground:

We estimate that 6.12×10−6 collisions will cause damage to an aircraft for every 100,000 hours of 2kg UAS flight time. Or to put it another way, one damaging incident will occur no more than every 1.87 million years of 2kg UAS flight time. We further estimate that 6.12×10−8 collisions that cause an injury or fatality to passengers on board an aircraft will occur every 100,000 hours of 2kg UAS flight time, or once every 187 million years of operation. This appears to be an acceptable risk to the airspace.

Much like the FAA’s unnecessary and unlawful registration requirement for all UAS above 0.55 pounds (0.25kg), the Senate bill’s blanket UAS manufacturing certification requirements are based on ignorance and fear, not knowledge and reason.

For all of its flaws, the House’s AIRR Act remains vastly superior to the Senate’s bill. The Senate should allow the House to take the lead and members of Congress should work to promote innovation in air traffic control, airport financing, and drones, not hinder it.