Senators Push Bill to Legalize Commercial Drones

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This story originally appeared on Fortune Magazine

Two U.S. senators on Tuesday introduced legislation to establish a set of temporary rules regulating commercial drone use. The aim of the bill is to allow companies to fly commercial drones—if in only a limited capacity—while awaiting a polished set of rules from the FAA, which is expected sometime in the next few years.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. are pushing the Commercial UAS Modernization Act as a means to foster innovation in the nascent commercial drone industry, while also allowing U.S. companies to test drones in the same way international firms are currently doing overseas.

“There is so much potential that can be unlocked if we lay the proper framework to support innovation in unmanned aircraft systems,” Sen. Booker said in a statement. “But right now, the U.S. is falling behind other countries because we lack rules for the safe operation of commercial [unmanned aircraft systems] technology. The Commercial UAS Modernization Act sets up clear and immediate rules of the road, helping to lay a foundation that will allow us to make cutting-edge progress in a rapidly emerging field.”

Booker and Hoeven have both been outspoken supporters for integrating commercial drone technology into the national airspace sooner rather than later. The bipartisan bill, if passed, could go a long way to not only opening up the skies for commercial drone applications, but also creating the legal headroom needed to allow for drone technology development.

As things stand now, legal avenues for change are difficult to come by. Last year the Federal Aviation Administration published a set of proposed regulations governing commercial drone use in U.S. airspace, but those regulations aren’t expected to be finalized for another year, or possibly longer. In the meantime, companies that want to use drones for commercial use must apply for permission on a case-by-case basis.

This slow process not only pulls limited FAA staff away from crafting permanent regulations to review the one-off permits, but stifles innovation as companies often wait months for their exemptions to be approved. The delay also adds long wait times for companies in the U.S. working on new technology, that’s if they don’t take their research and development elsewhere out of frustration.

Problems with current drone commercialization rules came to a head in March, when Amazon—which is seeking clearance to test drone delivery technologies—received an airworthiness certificate to test one of its early drone models after nearly a year of waiting for approval. By the time the FAA granted the official go-ahead, the company had abandoned that particular drone model and moved ahead with newer technology not covered under the FAA’s certification.

“We innovated so rapidly that the [unmanned aircraft systems] approved last week by the FAA has become obsolete,” Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of global public policy, told a Senate subcommittee hearing at the time. “We don’t test it anymore. We’ve moved on to more advanced designs that we already are testing abroad.”

Amazon’s plight is one that’s come to characterize the U.S. commercial drone industry, and a problem Booker and Hoeven’s legislation hopes to address. Under the proposed bill, companies operating drones within a set of limited parameters (less than 500 feet above the ground, within line of sight of the operator, etc.) would be permitted to operate without specific FAA certification. Although it may seem like a small step, it’s a big deal for an industry that has the potential to add 100,000 jobs and more than $80 billion in economic activity to the U.S.

The bill would also create a way for companies to register commercial drones with regulators and called for the creation of an administrator position exclusively responsible for safe integration of drones into U.S. airspace. The move drew praise from industry groups like the Consumer Electronics Association, robotics industry group AUVSI, and the Small UAV Coalition, a lobby that represents Google and Amazon, among others.

Read the act in its entirety here.

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