When Your Letter to Congress Doesn’t Match Your Letter to POTUS (Oops..)

[Intro about lack of transparency at AUVSI.  Board of Directors no longer elected, appointed instead, downhill slide of overall advocacy, etc….]

But lately, I have grown rather confused. For example, I would like to highlight a series of letters from AUVSI that began in 2016.

Rewinding to 2016, there was a debate in the U.S. Senate regarding a portion of the FAA Reauthorization Act (at the time) that created express federal preemption for drones. Ultimately, the U.S. Senate reached a sort of detente and there was no language for express federal preemption in the final bill. In the end there seemed to be no broad support within Congress for express federal preemption for drones. While the debate was underway, AUVSI sent a letter to the U.S. Senate that read as follows:

April 12, 2016

United States Senate

The U.S. Capitol

Washington, D.C. 20510

Members of the United States Senate:

As organizations with a profound interest in the safe integration of UAS into the National Airspace System, we ask you to join us in opposing Sen. Feinstein’s amendments #3558 and #3650 or any other amendment that would change or strike the federal preemption provision, section 2152, of the FAA Reauthorization Act and put safety at risk. This section on federal preemption is essential so that UAS integration will be accomplished pursuant to uniform rules across the country.

Rules and regulations that determine who can fly, whether you can fly, where you can fly, how high you can fly, or when you can fly are generally the exclusive domain of the federal government. Proposals by state and local governments in these areas have the potential to create a complicated patchwork of laws that may erode, rather than enhance, air safety.

Additionally, it opens the door to those jurisdictions being able to put forward proposals that could have a profound effect on the operations of the manned aviation community.

A consistent framework will bring clarity to the regulations governing commercial UAS operations and obviate the need for states and municipalities to enact their own laws, which have the strong potential to create confusion and compliance burdens.

Essentially, AUVSI told the Senate that there is really no role for state and local governments, and that all aspects of flight rules and regulations are the exclusive domain of the FAA. Basically: “Express federal preemption. No room for debate.

Now, fast forward to 2017. Two pieces of legislation were introduced in Congress. The first was the Drone Federalism Act of 2017 which was introduced in the U.S. Senate. The other was the Drone Innovation Act of 2017 which was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. Both pieces of legislation proposed the creation of a set of “pilot sites” to develop state and local regulations in collaboration with the FAA and also allowed state and local governments to develop reasonable “time/place/manner” restrictions below 200 ft AGL. AUVSI opposed both bills and sent this letter to Congress:

June 15, 2017

United States Senate and House of Representatives

The U.S. Capitol

Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Members of Congress:

As organizations 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. However, we believe legislation is premature and lawmakers should wait until efforts such as the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee (DAC) have created consensus recommendations – with input from stakeholders – before considering changes to long-standing federal governance of the NAS. Legislating changes before consensus is reached may have dramatic unintended consequences that could stifle innovation, restrict economic growth and interstate commerce, and potentially compromise safety.

The FAA directed the DAC to “evaluate and analyze state or local government interests” which “could form the basis for recommendations to the DAC reflecting a consensus view that could be used to inform future agency action related to the relative role of state and local governments in regulating aspects of low-altitude UAS operations.” The tasking statement directs the group to issue a report on its findings in 2017.

A consistent framework, agreed upon by all parties involved, is essential for the future regulatory system governing one of the fastest-growing areas in the a erospace and technology sectors. We appreciate your willingness to allow a multi-stakeholder process to proceed and not jeopardize ongoing and collaborative efforts.


[NOTE: this letter seems to now be missing from AUVSI’s website.]

Basically, AUVSI asked Congress to wait on the DAC results before doing anything. It is important to note that the DAC has not yet finished its work. This makes the next letter even more surprising (confusing?). This letter was sent on October 12, 2017 to President Trump (I deleted portions for purposes of brevity):

“October 11, 2017

President Donald J. Trump

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Washington, DC 20006

Dear President Trump:

Innovation has been integral to America’s economic success and it will also play a crucial role in its future. A technology that shows great promise and tremendous benefits to continue moving our nation’s economy forward is unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), which is forecast to create more than 100,000 jobs and over $82 billion in economic impact over the next decade.

For months, we have advocated on Capitol Hill for a pilot program that allows state and local governments, along with UAS industry stakeholders, to develop a coordinated effort with the FAA concerning UAS airspace integration. We are pleased that your administration has also identified this as a sensible approach.

A pilot program would allow for a data-driven process, within a controlled operational environment, to explore the best options for states and municipalities to address their needs, as it relates to different types of UAS operations. Additionally, a pilot program is the best option for informing future regulatory and congressional action that will help enhance innovation and increase economic impact.

The most interesting part of this letter is the statement that “[f]or months, we have advocated on Capitol Hill for a pilot program that allows state and local governments, along with UAS industry stakeholders, to develop a coordinated effort with the FAA concerning UAS airspace integration.” Didn’t the June 2016 AUVSI letter to Congress ask that nothing be done until the DAC finishes its work?   And didn’t the April 2016 letter essentially say that there was no role for state and local governments?

I’m confused.

So, to recap, here is a timeline of AUVSI’s position(s):

April 2016: Strict express federal preemption, no role for state/local governments

June 2017: Wait on the Drone Advisory Committee results before acting

October 2017: We support state/local pilot sites, and have been working with Congress for months.

Hmmm. I’m really not sure what to say. Maybe just “oops”?

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Editor in Field, sUAS News Americas Desk | Patrick Egan is the editor of the Americas Desk at sUAS News and host and Executive Producer of the sUAS News Podcast Series, Drone TV and the Small Unmanned Systems Business Exposition. Experience in the field includes assignments with the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command Battle Lab investigating solutions on future warfare research projects. Instructor for LTA (Lighter Than Air) ISR systems deployment teams for an OSD, U.S. Special Operations Command, Special Surveillance Project. Built and operated commercial RPA prior to 2007 FAA policy clarification. On the airspace integration side, he serves as director of special programs for the RCAPA (Remote Control Aerial Photography Association).