Now the Senate is Heard From…Part One

Last month, we took you through some of the UAS-elated provisions in the House version of the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act of 2016 (AIRR). The Senate’s version of the Bill has made it out of committee, and the two Bills have very little in common. In this first part of a Three-part series, we will take you through some of the more significant provisions in the Senate Bill, which could have a profound impact on the future of UAS integration.

The already lengthy Bill was further augmented by 57 amendments, and the parts just dealing with UAS far exceed 70 pages.

Among the most significant of the provisions requires the FAA to impose design and production standards for virtually all unmanned aircraft within one year from enactment. UAS manufacturers will not be allowed to sell any aircraft in the US unless they certify to the FAA that their manufacturing processes meet the standard, random samples are tested to the standard, and they provide a sample to the FAA for their review. While the Senate is clear that it does not want the FAA to use the existing aircraft certification processes, the Bill essentially establishes a “certification-lite” for all UAS. The one saving clause in the proposed law is that the FAA can determine applicability of the standards However, there is no restriction on applying the standards to all aircraft and it is not clear if the intent of the Bill is to apply these standards to model aircraft as well as aircraft operated commercially. If enacted, the Bill would reverse the course the FAA has taken with the sUAS rule, where no airworthiness is required for commercial operations not conducted over people or beyond visual line of sight.

The Bill also creates a requirement for all operators (even model aircraft pilots) to pass an “Aeronautical knowledge and safety test.” The test would not be required if the pilot is a public aircraft operator or the FAA has established other rules that require a certificate or no certificate. It also exempts aircraft under .55 lbs. and pilots under 13 who fly under the supervision of an adult who has passed the test. The test would be administered electronically and would examine the applicant’s understanding of regulations that govern UAS operations. The FAA would have 180 days to put the testing process in place after the Bill becomes law. Operators would have to be able to prove they have met the requirement by showing proof of passage or a valid airman’s certificate. Surprisingly, the FAA is specifically prohibited from issuing a civil penalty for a first offense.

The Bill also makes a significant change to the Special Rule for Model Aircraft. The provision that prevents the FAA from promulgating new rules and regulations is altered to prohibit rules “…specific to only an unmanned aircraft…” This means that FAA can essentially get around the Special Rule for Model Aircraft by simply making every rule one of “general application.” As a result, if a new rule affects model aircraft, but is not specifically targeted at them, it would pass judicial scrutiny. In addition, the rule explicitly gives airports the authority to veto any attempt to operate a model aircraft in their vicinity. The current rule only requires that a hobbyist notify the airport. Finally, the Bill explicitly requires the aeronautical knowledge and safety test discussed above to be passed by all model aircraft pilots.

So, as we can see in part one of our series, the Congress seems to be divided, with the House being generally in favor of reducing FAA requirements and opening the skies to the industry, and the Senate very interested in a much slower approach. Stay tuned to see which philosophy prevails.

Originally posted March 28, 2016

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