Alabama UAS Task Force presents recommendations to governor

By Patrick C. Miller | January 22, 2015

The Alabama UAS Task Force earlier this month presented its recommendations to Gov. Robert Bentley and created a process to assist the state in making decisions about the development of unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

In a letter to the governor, task force chairman John McMillan—Alabama’s agriculture commissioner—recommended the creation of a UAS Council and that UAS authority in the state be placed under the Bureau of Aeronautics of the Alabama Department of Transportation.

The UAS Council will be made up of members of the current task force with the addition of representation from the Alabama Legislature. The council would serve as an advisory group and provide direction to the Bureau of Aeronautics, which would become the single contact point and source of UAS expertise.

After Bentley created the UAS Task Force last July, it formed subcommittees for legislative affairs; agriculture and forestry; conservation and natural resources; transportation, construction and public utilities; first responders and public safety; education and research; and aviation. The subcommittees conducted research and met with UAS experts and stakeholders.

Brad Fields, director of emergency programs in the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industry, worked with the subcommittees and assisted McMillan in drafting the recommendations to Bentley.

“The subcommittees looked at the current uses for UAS, what are potential uses in the future, what are the benefits, what are the risks, and what are the challenges getting from where we are today to a point in the future,” he said.

Fields said that forming the UAS Task Force also demonstrated how little was known about the topic.

“When we started this, there were so many misconceptions about who could fly what and how high and what the FAA rules were,” he said. “By bringing in the subject matter experts, it was a great education process. They defined the airspace and said this is what currently the FAA allows and doesn’t allow. This is what’s coming down the pipeline. It got everybody on the same page and speaking with one voice.”

Fields noted that the task force sought to achieve a balance between moving UAS development in Alabama forward and passing laws in advance of Federal Aviation Administration issuing its UAS regulations.

“There were some other states that just came out preemptively and said they were banning UAS research and development until the FAA decides what they’re going to do,” he explained. “Our sentiment in Alabama from the task force viewpoint is that’s not sound doctrine and policy.”

Instead, Fields said Alabama intends to comply with current FAA rules and regulations, but be in a position to assist state agencies and private organizations that have a need for UAS technology, assisting them in applying for FAA exemptions and certificates of authorization.

“We certainly wanted to be ahead of the curve in a positive way and not be restrictive,” he said. “We have the task force, the members and the subcommittees in place so that we can provide an educated, science-based and non-biased response to a legislator or a private group.”

Fields related that the month after the UAS Task Force was formed, the importance of its work was brought home when an Alabama Power helicopter inspecting a transmission line crashed, killing the pilot and a utility company employee.

“If you can do that same service using an unmanned aerial system, and get safer, more cost-efficient technology and probably better data back in our system, why wouldn’t you want to do that?” he asked.

Going forward, Fields said, “The ultimate goal is that if legislation comes forward or a group pushes for legislation or policy enactments, it first would go to the aeronautics bureau and be vetted to make sure any recommendations are science-based and sound. Above all, we won’t impede the implementation of UAS development in Alabama.”