July 18, 2016

Unmanned Aircraft System Safety Addressed in FAA Extension

Holland & Knight Aviation Law Blog
Joel E. Roberson

Last week, Congress passed bipartisan legislation to extend the authority of the FAA through September 30, 2017, and 13 sections in the bill are dedicated to unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). The bill was signed by President Obama on Friday, July 15.

The majority of the UAS sections originated in the Senate-passed full FAA reauthorization bill (H.R. 636), but that bill was stalled based on a disagreement with the House regarding efforts to privatize FAA air traffic control functions.

Five noteworthy UAS sections in the new FAA extension are:

  • Sec. 2203. Safety Statements. This section requires small UAS manufacturers to provide certain safety information to purchasers of their products. This in effect places on the manufacturer a burden of educating consumers about applicable laws and regulations. Manufacturers who fail to provide the required information are liable for civil penalties of up to $27,500 per violation. The required information includes information about, and sources of, laws and regulations applicable to small UAS, recommendations for safe operation of the small UAS, and requirements for operating the small UAS as a model aircraft.
  • Sec. 2205. Interference with wildfire suppression, law enforcement, or emergency response effort by operation of unmanned aircraft. This section creates a civil penalty of up to $20,000 for a UAS operator that "knowingly or recklessly interferes with a wildfire suppression, law enforcement, or emergency response."
  • Sec. 2207. Emergency exemption process. This section requires FAA to create a process for emergency decisions on exemptions and certificates of authorizations (COAs) for civil or public operators in response to a catastrophe, disaster, or other emergency. Following the publication of the small UAS final rule, which goes into effect on August 29, 2016, an exemption or COA would be necessary for UAS operations beyond the parameters laid out in the rule – i.e., flights beyond visual line of sight, at night, etc. This section requires the FAA to act on qualifying exemption requests "as expeditiously as practicable and without requiring public notice and comment." The section uses the following as examples of situations where emergency decisions would be appropriate: "emergency response operations, such as firefighting, search and rescue, and utility and infrastructure restoration efforts." The FAA is required to issue guidance setting up the emergency exemption process in 90 days.
  • Sec. 2208. Unmanned aircraft systems traffic management. This section requires FAA and NASA to develop a research plan for an unmanned aircraft system traffic management (UTM) within 6 months of enactment. Over time, the UTM system is expected to become integrated with the manned air traffic control system. As UAS operations continue to grow, the development of an integrated UTM system will be important for commercial operators in order to address congestion and flight safety during operations.
  • Sec. 2209. Applications for designation. This section requires FAA to develop an application process for entities to request that the FAA "prohibit or restrict the operation of an unmanned aircraft in close proximity to a fixed site facility." The section describes "fixed site facilities" as critical infrastructure, oil refineries, chemical facilities, amusement parks, and other locations that warrant such restrictions. Currently, UAS operators are required to comply with Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) which protect the airspace over and near some of the facilities described in this section. However, this section goes one step further by allowing facilities to request protection specific to their sites and instructing the FAA to define particular protected boundaries around the facilities.

Other provisions require:

  • development of standards for remote identification of UAS (Sec. 2202);
  • facilitation of interagency cooperation in authorizing UAS use in support of fire-fighting operations (Sec. 2204);
  • development of a pilot program for airspace hazard mitigation at airports and other critical infrastructure (Sec. 2206);
  • creation of a specific exemption for operations beyond the visual line of sight of the operator and during the day or at night for activities related to critical infrastructure, such as inspection and repair of pipelines and other energy infrastructure and responding to natural disasters or other events that cause material damage to certain critical infrastructure (Sec. 2210);
  • development of a UAS research and development roadmap (Sec. 2211); and
  • research on UAS collisions (including collision of two UAS, and collisions between UAS and various manned aircraft and parts of aircraft) and research on the potential use of probabilistic assessments of risk to streamline the integration of UAS into the national airspace system (Sec. 2212 and 2213).

View a copy of the Enrolled Bill. The UAS provisions are contained in Title II, Subtitle B.

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