Senator Attempts to Tie Drone Federalism to Long-Term FAA Reauthorization Bill

Author: Stephanie A. Short

A new road block to the passage of the FAA reauthorization bill has arisen in the form of an amendment expected to be offered by Republican Senator Mike Lee (Utah) that would permit state and local regulation of drone deliveries. The proposed amendment has drawn harsh criticism from industry groups.

Senator Lee is a long-time proponent of state and local regulation of drones. As a sponsor of the Drone Federalism Act—which would have permitted local regulation of all drones operating under 200 feet— Senator Lee argued that the process of developing a federal regulatory scheme has been too long and burdensome and has hampered, and will continue to hamper, the growth of the drone industry. He has argued that while US drone operators wait on federal regulations, other countries are moving forward, including Japan, which already has drone deliveries, and Rwanda, where medicine is delivered by drones.

Numerous aviation and drone industry groups, including the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (“AOPA”), Aerospace Industries Association (“AIA”), the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (“GAMA”), and the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (“AUVSI”), among others, signed a letter opposing Senator Lee’s proposed amendment. The letter argues that permitting thousands of state and local governments to impose restrictions on drone delivery operations would jeopardize, not promote the growth and development of the industry. This, the letter adds, will deprive the United States of the “immense humanitarian potential” offered by commercial drone air carrier operations, such as the delivery of medical supplies, blood, food, and water to disaster stricken areas.

These industry groups have a point. Already there are hundreds of different local drone regulations touching on issues like privacy and flight over public lands with which the fledging commercial drone delivery industry must grapple. It remains to be seen whether the Senate will be receptive to the amendment. For now, it poses another hurdle for the FAA reauthorization bill to overcome.