Senators propose immediate, temporary revisions to FAA UAS NPRM; what have they wrought?

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Sens. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) (left) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) (right) introduced legislation on May 12 that, if enacted, would become the immediately applicable rules for the operation of sUAS until the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Part 107 NPRM becomes final. The Senators are obviously frustrated with the FAA’s slowness in issuing the rules for this new industry; so they have imposed their own set of regulations.

What are the variances between the Booker-Hoeven bill and the FAA’s proposal? What are the new assignments imposed on the FAA by this proposed legislation? How will the sUAS industry react to the statute’s authorizing the FAA to assess fees, without any expressed limits as to setting of those dollar amounts?

Surprisingly, the bill, the Commercial UAS Modernization Act (CUASMA), relies on the private sector to be the primary, but not sole, protector of safety. Section 337(b)(2) requires that an sUAS may not be operated for commercial use until the Administrator has received “an attestation that the owner of such aircraft has a liability insurance policy covering the operation of that aircraft.” The risks associated under CUASMA’s particular set of rules will be difficult for the insurance carriers to estimate. The Secretary, presumably, will have to determine the dollar amount for the coverage as well as vet any exclusions in the policy.

The pool of sUAS operators will range from incredibly sophisticated companies with highly developed safety cultures to organizations which are unaware of the attendant safety risks. Given that span of competencies, the costs of insurance will be high unless and until the insurers can define and utilize standards to segregate the levels of risk.

The legislation would elevate the person with responsibility of regulating UAS to a Deputy Associate Administrator for Unmanned Aircraft. In 2013 the FAA Administrator consolidated a number of organizations into a single office, AFS-80. The Manager of that organization reports to the Director of Flight Standards (AFS-1) who in turn works for AVS-2 and AVS-1. The Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety (AVS-1) has a Deputy Associate Administrator (AVS-2). Creating a Deputy Associate Administrator for UAS (AVS-3/UAS?) would elevate the current position two reports up the administrative ladder. The current relationship appears to work; so it is unclear what the goal for changing the title is—more visibility, greater resources (personnel and/or budget?)?

Another major change is the addition of a power to assess “reasonable fees” and collect them from operators or owners. The fee setting power, granted to the AVS-3/UAS, has no statutory criteria; so should the dollar amount reflect the full costs of the certification services?

Like the current Part 107 draft, the Booker-Hoeven bill will require registration by the owner of the sUAS with the FAA. Again like the FAA’s NPRM, this legislation, if enacted, would mandate that in order to get a sUAS certificate the operator must pass a written test PLUS a “a proficiency test” as well as a demonstration of “the ability to fly the aircraft in accordance with the operating restrictions…” (defined below). To develop the standards which will form the basis of passing or failing these examinations will not be easy. Their formulation may consume as much time as the FAA’s finalization of Part 107, because such “rules” to be established by the FAA must be subjected to the APA protections.

The Senators introduce the certification of the individual sUAS aircraft in §337(c). The certification will be done at and by the six test sites (note: one of them is in Senator Hoeven’s North Dakota) assisted by designated airworthiness representative. The certification standards cite the rules found in the Part 107 NPRM (none) and a capability to operate within the “operating restrictions” (see the next paragraph).

Operating restrictions: one section (§337(c)) includes all of provisions of the draft Part 107. A few key provisions include:

  • CUASMA includes the line-of-sight limitations of Part 107,
  • the Booker-Hoeven proposal would authorize sUAS to fly to 500’ AGL, following the FAA judgment, and
  • requires that the operator obtain prior authorization from the air traffic control facility which has jurisdiction over Class B, C or D airspace plus facilities within the “lateral boundaries of surface area of Class E airspace designated for an airport.”

The proposed statutory language provides enforcement powers and reporting of accident requirements.

CUASMA sets an agenda for the AVS-3/UAS literally. Section 338(b) directs the UAS Deputy to:

  • a comprehensive R&D plan to integrate UAS into the NAS,
  • an audit of all governmental UAS uses and users,
  • programmatic exemptions should be issued,
  • a strategy for UAS spectrum allocation,
  • removing “barriers” to BLOS and
  • removing “barriers” to carriage of payloads.

The Senators also set a UAS agenda for the Administrator; to wit:

  • to set up a Joint Aircraft Research and Development Center at the FAA’s William J. Hughes Technology Center
    • the Center Director shall set “priorities for data collection, analysis, and research under the program”, including:
      • identifying safety standards for detect and avoid,
      • command and control,
      • autonomous aircraft systems, and air traffic management for beyond-visual-line of sight operations for such aircraft.
  • The JARDC shall establish a research program for the 6 test sites and the following shall be included:
    • to conduct research;
    • to collect data; and
    • to develop quarterly milestones to expedite commercial unmanned aircraft system operations; and
  • to work with other Federal agencies, the Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, Federally funded research and development centers, industry, academia, and others, as appropriate, to implement the plan referred to JARDC plan.
  • AIR TRAFFIC M ANAGEMENT PILOT PROGRAM—the FAA and NASA Administrators are charged with establishing an air traffic management pilot program to research and test a new regulatory structure for commercial and other operations of small unmanned aircraft in controlled and uncontrolled airspace below 1,200 feet above ground level.

The Air Traffic Management Pilot Program proposes an altitude in which there will be considerable traffic. The sUAS sense and avoid technology has not been proved; integrating these vehicles with GA aircraft in the same airspace will have higher risk for air collisions and may radically increase the cost and weight for the onboard equipment for both classes of aircraft.

The list will consume considerable FAA resources (dollars and staff) at a time when Congress has consistently reduced both of those accounts for years.

Finally the Senators decreed that the Director of the Tech Center must provide progress reports every six months to the two Senate and two House committees with substantive and appropriations jurisdictions over the FAA.

The source of many, if not all, of these ideas is suggested by a press release issued almost simultaneously by AUVSI.

What is absent are the funds needed for all of these requirements. Directing, for example, the FAA to assign certification of the sUAS and to task them with research programs will either require appropriations or will the authority to set fees incorporate collection of funds needed to fund all of these programs?

ARTICLE: Senators want drones to fly before rules are finalized

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1 Comment on "Senators propose immediate, temporary revisions to FAA UAS NPRM; what have they wrought?"

  1. FAA Announces Key UAS Jobs
    – The FAA has posted two executive-level job announcements to to enhance its approach to UAS integration.

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