Congress should consider NOW whether UAS industry’s safety program should be paid for by User Fees?

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Some thoughts on the FAA’s past and its immediate future which may influence the Congress in its consideration of the FAA Reauthorization as to UAS—

  • · In most public opinion polls, the general populace indicates that the work of the FAA is needed and more, not less, of its work is appropriate. For 20, maybe 30, years the Congress has made it clear that the FAA will continue to get fewer dollars for its budget.
  • · In the past 20 years, while the number of airlines has decreased, the public’s expectations for the FAA’s surveillance of these certificates have increased.
  • · In the past 20 years, the jurisdiction of the FAA has increased to include space launches, with no appreciable increase in staff.
  • · In the past 5-10 years, the certification activity under Parts 21, 23, 25 and 28 have increased and the complexity of the technical judgment in these FAA reviews has also grown.
  • · Almost 70 years ago Congress established the regulatory regime under which the FAA works today. That statute/regulation set has not been reassessed since then nor is it likely that there can/will be a substantive changes for those holding authority under those original rules.
  • · It is quite clear that the company holding FAA authorities gains some economic value therefrom, but under the governance theories of 1938 paying for that value of that license would be inappropriate.
  • · Today, the Administration and Congress are willing to accept that for new licenses, recovery of the actual administrative costs is acceptable. There are US safety agencies which do collect charges which are related to their costs (Also, foreign governments are quite free in their assessing of certification costs).

The FAA is facing an exponential growth in its scope of work. The growth of drones, remotely piloted vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) is forecast to be tremendous both in the smaller aircraft and larger as well as defined in amateur and commercial uses. For the FAA there will be significant demands to regulate and surveil all of these new UAS—

certification of the design, production and airworthiness of this multitude of vehicles,

certification of hobby and commercial operators of these UAS,

surveillance of the operations of these UAS, which can literally take off from almost every backyard and fly into the airways of the airlines,

privacy: these UAS can observe, undetected, behavior which has been considered private, and

integration of these UAS into the National Airspace System.

Unless there is some major religious transformation on the Hill, this immense expansion of the scope of FAA responsibility will be done without any new agency staff positions. The future UAS horizon exceeds the workload encompassed by it accession of authority over space!

As Congress considers the FAA Reauthorization which will be on the 2015 legislative agenda, might it be proper to consider a cost-based licensing fee for these activities?

The history of FAA user fees is not a great precedent. Primarily the debate was over the allocation among users of the ATC and which classes of operators incurred what costs. To add to the controversy, substantial issues about the FAA’s ability to accumulate ATC costs and the basic accuracy of its records (those questions continue even without the user fee basis of debate– ). Unlike that quagmire, the definition of the actual costs of TC/PC certification for UAS vehicles and classes of UAS operator certifications (and annual renewal) can be captured if the FAA establishes the right accounting systems NOW.

If the FAA can define with certainty the costs associated with UAS certificates, then would it be appropriate to establish in the 2015 reauthorization fees for issuing these authorities? Clearly, the charges assessed to hobby operators should be relatively small; for their “economic” value is at or near zero.

The opposition of the nascent UAS sector to the as-of-yet unknown FARs, particularly the current Model Aircraft operators, has been substantial. Their vehemence of their attacks is a strong indicator that they would oppose such fees. Thus it is critical to establish a fair fee early in the process.

As to the large and small commercial operators, it will be more politically feasible to try to include a cost-based fee now, rather than later. Congress might be willing to use these added fees as a basis for increasing the FAA personnel. To increase transparency as well as add some level of oversight, Congress might want to create an independent Board which would track the FAA’s UAS fees and would assure that unnecessary inflation occurs.

It would appear appropriate to consider this proposal now, well before the Reauthorization is being finalized; so that the rough edges can be refined. More importantly, as the industry and the FAA consider the new UAS regulatory regime, they can contemporaneously contemplate a new business for which the users pay for some portion of the regulatory supports which those flights will incur. As user fee regime would create a basis for the new industry to demand timely certifications; for the FAA could not claim that they are understaffed. If you are paying for the service, you have grounds to complain.

By all estimates, by the next time that Congress has Reauthorization before it (2019?), the UAS industry will have many amateur and professional participants, an established business based on the rules to be issued soon. Now is the appropriate time to consider the propriety of imposing user fees; five years from now the momentum behind this sector will be too great.

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