Drone Directives Detailed in FAA Extension

WASHINGTON—A bill authorizing continued funding for the Federal Aviation Administration lays out several directives pertaining to drones with regard to firefighting, air traffic control, research and mid-air collisions with manned aircraft.

On Wednesday, the Senate voted 90-4 to pass the ‘‘FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016” to extend funding for the agency through Sept. 30, 2017. The bill represents the third extension to reauthorize the FAA after the full, six-year reauthorization choked on a provision to privatize air traffic control. This latest 14-month extension is needs the president’s signature by July 15, when current authorization ends and both the House and Senate adjourn for summer break.

The bill includes provisions for drones, or “unmanned aircraft systems,” as they are referenced in the text. These provisions build on rules for operating drones that the FAA established last month, most of which cover basic flight parameters such a altitude, line-of-sight operation, piloting qualification, restricted airspace and registration.

The FAA extension bill further directs the FAA to coordinate with the Department of the Interior and Agriculture Department to expedite the authorization of drones in firefighting. It also instructs the FAA to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to do the same for drones used in efforts to restore utilities in the event of a major outage.

Also on the firefighting front, the bill authorizes the FAA to go after drone operators who interfere with wildfire suppression efforts with a fine of up to $20,000. Drones have become an increasingly common sight for pilots flying in flame retardant and fire jumping teams. Aircraft were temporarily grounded last month because of drone interference during efforts to contain a wildfire in the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California, ars technica reported. Firefighting aircraft were grounded last week after drones were spotted over the Saddle Fire in Utah, according to KSL.

The bill further calls on the FAA to team up with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to continue developing an air traffic control system for drones, and figure out how to integrate it into the national airspace system, including the use of “decision-making by adaptive systems, such as sense-and-avoid capabilities and cyber-physical systems security.”

NASA and the FAA also are directed to create comprehensive “testing or modeling” of drones colliding with jets, propeller and rotary aircraft of various sizes, speeds and points of contact.

Finally, the FAA will have to deliver a study to the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure on “the potential use of probabilistic assessments of risks by the administration to streamline the integration of unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system, including any research and development necessary.”

Kara Calvert, director of the Drone Manufacturers Alliance, released the following statement after the Senate vote: “The Drone Manufacturers Alliance is pleased the House and Senate have passed a short-term FAA extension bill. We applaud the inclusion of provisions to protect emergency responders from unauthorized drones, while also encouraging the use of drones to save lives and property in emergencies.

“However, new requirements for mandatory reporting statements and identification standards could end up limiting the benefits of drone technology, and these provisions will require careful coordination with the FAA to ensure they are implemented without stifling innovation.

“We look forward to working with congress and the FAA to advance a streamlined regulatory process for low-risk ‘micro’ drones and preserve the FAA’s sole authority over unmanned aerial operations.”