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Alabama's Wise UAS Approach

By Patrick C. Miller | January 22, 2015

In the absence of clear direction from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, some states have decided to implement their own laws on unmanned aerial systems. It’s a bit like hoping the sleeping 800-pound gorilla likes the way you’ve redecorated his room when he wakes up.

While states certainly have the right to pass such laws, some question whether they might not only be unnecessary, but also serve to inhibit the growth of the UAS industry. When Alabama Governor Robert Bentley appointed a UAS Task Force last July, it was mostly to consider how the state could get the FAA’s permission to start flying UAS.

The five task force members found that there was a great deal more they needed to know if they were to put Alabama in position to use UAS where cost, safety and efficiency made sense. They also thought about the approach the state should take when it came to passing legislation or enacting regulations dealing with UAS.

Seven subcommittees were formed to study specific areas in which UAS were likely to be used, as well as such topics as legislation, aviation, education and research. Each subcommittee held meetings, conducted research and consulted with experts in the UAS field. Recently, the Alabama UAS Task Force presented its recommendations to Gov. Bentley.

Besides recommending that the governor create a UAS Council and place the state’s UAS authority under the Bureau of Aeronautics of the Alabama Department of Transportation, a more general consensus emerged that trying to get ahead of what the FAA might do should be avoided.

The UAS Task Force and its subcommittees laid the groundwork for a system that can examine UAS-related issues from a variety of perspectives and help the state make well-informed decisions rather than knee-jerk reactions.

Brad Fields, director of emergency programs in the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industry, assisted the UAS Task Force Chairman—Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan—in drafting the recommendations to Gov. Bentley.

He summed up the state’s approach this way: “I think there’s going to be a lot more work moving forward, but we want to take it slow, look at it methodically with science-based and research-based evidence and technology and with real data before we allow politicians or special interest groups to be able to push legislation that would impede Alabama’s future.”

Only time will tell whether Alabama’s sound and reasonable plan for UAS development can avoid the pitfalls of occasionally misguided public opinion, political ambitions and special interests. However, the Alabama UAS Task Force is to be commended for recommending an approach that attempts to achieve a balance between doing it right and just doing it.