By Ryan Mac and Frank Bi
U.S. Senator Cory Booker is set to introduce legislation to establish temporary rules to govern the commercial use of drones that could greatly expand the ability of companies to fly unmanned vehicles, according to documents obtained by FORBES.
On Tuesday, the junior senator from New Jersey could present a bill before the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security that will allow for the piloting of small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for purposes such as the surveying of construction sites or the mapping of crops. If passed, the legislation will dramatically change the government’s stance toward the commercial use of drones, which is currently banned by the Federal Aviation Administration, with only a few exceptions.
According to sources familiar with Booker’s proposed legislation who provided a two-week old draft of the document, the bill will create a temporary set of conditions that will be placed on UAVs used for business until the FAA issues final rules on the matter. The “Commercial UAV Modernization Act” will allow operators that have passed a knowledge test to commercially operate drones below a 500-feet limit, within the FAA’s already defined “visual flight rules” and only during daylight, unless otherwise exempted. One source expected Booker to unveil the legislation on Tuesday, while another said that tomorrow may be too early, but to expect the bill in the near future.
“It’s all speculation at the moment,” said Monique Waters, a spokesperson for Senator Booker, when asked about the legislation.
With observers expecting the FAA to possibly take up to two years to define rules regarding commercial drones, the bill already has support from members of both parties within the 20-person subcommittee, which includes Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Maria Cantwell of Washington state, according to the source. The source also noted that Republican Senator Dean Heller from Nevada is among its biggest proponents. A spokesperson for Senator Heller did not respond to calls requesting comment.
Booker’s legislation is separate from the new rules that are expected to be introduced by the FAA before a congressional subcommittee hearing on Tuesday. First reported by Reuters, the FAA, may streamline the process by which companies can obtain drone exemption permits by no longer requiring businesses to file for documentation for each new use of a drone. Until recently, the administration has received more than 750 requests for exemptions under the current ban on commercial UAVs, but has only issued about 50. The FAA was unaware that Booker was going to introduce legislation and declined to comment.
“Today there are thousands of end businesses waiting for the appropriate regulatory environment to use drone-based solutions,” said Kespry CEO Paul Doersch, whose startup is developing a high-end drone for aerial imaging and analysis. “As the industry evolves, we can expect hundreds of thousands of businesses to take advantage of this technology over the next five to ten years.”
Last week, Amazon.com AMZN -0.93% received a much-publicized certificate to begin testing its delivery drones in its home state of Washington. The airworthiness certificate came with many stipulations including requirements that drone operators must have private pilot certificates. Most crippling of all, however, was the fact that the certificate only applied to a specific model of drone and did not allow for iteration or modification on that vehicle as the company tested its Air Prime delivery program.
While some commended the FAA for being forward-thinking, those close to the Seattle-based tech company thought otherwise, deeming it a shallow move that promotes little innovation. On Tuesday, Amazon will trot out Paul Misener, head of the company’s global public policy, to speak in front of senators on its desire for greater leeway when it comes to UAV policy. Currently Amazon has been unable to test its latest drones in the U.S. and has instead been testing its program in Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
Amazon declined to comment ahead of Tuesday’s hearing.
Booker’s proposed legislation may be the type of wide-ranging policy that Amazon is hoping for. Meant to serve as temporary rules until the FAA can propose its own, the modernization act will require companies to carry liability insurance but it will be much more lenient to drone operators. Unlike Amazon’s certificate and current exemptions going out to other businesses, UAV operators will not be required to have a private pilot’s license under Booker’s legislation and will only be required to pass an “aeronautical knowledge test.”
The bill also calls for the appointing of a “Deputy Associate Administrator for Unmanned Aircraft” to report to the head of the FAA and the Secretary of Transportation. While the FAA for most of its existence has overseen the operations of manned vehicles, the new position suggests a need for another leader to understand unmanned aircraft issues. That person will oversee the administration of the other rules set forth in the bill including the proper reporting of any drone-associated accidents, the registration of commercial UAV operators and the creation of further rules with regards to payloads and the flying of drones out of a pilot’s line of sight.
The draft of the bill remains currently vague on that last point, which has significant bearing as to the feasibility on commercial use cases such as drone delivery. In Amazon’s futuristic case for delivery by UAV, drones will have to be able to autonomously fly for a few miles to drop off small packages to customers, who will be out of sight of any operator or overseer. Booker’s legislation currently suggests that drones be governed with current “visual flight rules,” which are a set of a guidelines that only allow for aircraft navigation as long as a pilot can see where they are going. Given the introduction of first-person headsets that can allow for a pilot to see what a drone is seeing through a camera, there will likely be plenty of debate when it comes to determining how far drones can actually fly.
Still the expected bill represents quite an advancement in thinking from Booker, who was quoted in a Jan. 2014 Senate hearing as saying that UAVs are “caught between my Star Trek aspirations and my Terminator fears.” According to those that have met with him through the Small UAV Coalition, a Washington, D.C. lobbying group that’s backed by Amazon, Google GOOGL +0.06% and other drone-related companies, Booker has been particularly enthusiastic about unmanned aircraft, asking for demos of new products and devices. On Twitter TWTR +0.04%, Booker has shared links about drones making medical deliveries or helping to monitor rhino poaching in Africa.
“The United States has fallen behind in the race to explore where this new technology can take us,” wrote Booker in a February opinion piece with CNN. “Yet while other countries acted quickly to do so — in some instances, years ago — the commercial use of drones in the United States has remained illegal with the exception of a small handful of commercial users who have successfully filed for waivers at the Federal Aviation Administration.”