Drone Federalism is the Wrong Move
A safe national airspace (NAS) is critical to American commerce, travel, and national security. The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has been directed by the U.S. Congress to control and actively manage our skies, which they have done admirably throughout the years. In fact, many nations look to American airspace management practices with envy, as our aviation record and dedication to safe skies speaks for itself.
Unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones, are joining traditional, manned aircraft as frequent fliers given the technology’s promise, and the FAA has taken this innovation in stride via new regulations, pilot programs, and an overarching dedication to safety. They have both the responsibility and authority to regulate aviation safety and efficiency throughout the navigable airspace, which of necessity can stretch all the way down to the ground.
Unfortunately, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) is planning to challenge this airspace authority during the U.S. Senate’s ongoing budget resolution process, via an amendment promoting the idea of “drone federalism.” If enacted, the amendment would allow states and localities to pursue their own operating guidelines, leading to a patchwork of inoperable and industry-stifling regulations.
Sen. Lee’s amendment is misguided. Congress has explicitly designated control of the national airspace (NAS) to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), an action that took place over fifty years ago and is the primary reason why our skies are safe and well-managed.
Safe operation is a bedrock principle of the UAS industry, and our member companies have demonstrated that time and time again. In fact drones have started playing pivotal roles in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, delivering test kits and medical specimens in a contactless fashion, all while flying responsibly and adhering to FAA regulations.
The UAS industry represents the promise of American innovation, and the FAA has proven to be a trusted steward of the NAS for traditional and new aircraft. Their authority over any part of our skies should not be stripped away, because that would lead to a decrease in national security.
A copy of the letter of opposition that AUVSI sent to the U.S. Senate this morning is below.
Re: AUVSI Opposition to Lee Amendment on Drone Federalism
4 February 2021
As an organization with a profound interest in the safe and responsible integration of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or “drones” into the National Airspace System (NAS), we acknowledge the unique and complex issues drones raise related to federal, state, and local roles and responsibilities.
Federal control of the airspace—delegated in practice by Congress to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—is a bedrock principle of aviation law that dates back well over 50 years and is one of the reasons that the United States maintains an aviation safety record that is the envy of the rest of the world. The FAA has long taken the position that it has both the responsibility and authority to regulate the aviation safety and efficiency throughout the navigable airspace, which of necessity can stretch all the way down to the ground.
As S. Con Res 5 is being considered, we believe including drone federalism language, as proposed by Senator Lee through an amendment that would grant greater powers to localities to regulate the airspace, is unnecessary and premature. The federal UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP) that recently completed its initial phase creates an opportunity for state, local and tribal governments, along with the UAS industry, to collaborate with the FAA to further develop a federal policy framework for integrating UAS into the national airspace. The FAA's next evolution of the IPP, BEYOND, provides a mechanism for all levels of government to contribute their views to the UAS policy framework as it evolves, without infringing on the federal jurisdiction of the national airspace. Maintaining federal authority of the airspace will help foster innovation and allow states, municipalities, and tribes to tap into the full potential of UAS, while continuing to keep our skies safe.
Legislating changes before consensus is reached through the process that the FAA has laid out may have dramatic unintended consequences that could stifle innovation, restrict economic growth and interstate commerce, and potentially compromise safety. We ask that you oppose the Lee Amendment on drone federalism.
President & CEO
Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International