What Kind Of UAS Sausage Will Congress Make?

There was a positive reaction to the Commercial UAS Modernization Act introduced in Congress last week. But will it be what UAS commercialization really needs by the time it's passed?
By Patrick C. Miller | May 21, 2015

There was a great deal of excitement in the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) world last week when the Commercial UAS Modernization Act was introduced in Congress with bipartisan support from Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

When I spoke with Maj. Gen. James Poss (retired) of Mississippi State University, the director of the Federal Aviation Administration’s newly created National Center of Excellence (COE) for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, he reflected that excitement.

“We hope it’s going to affect us in a very positive manner,” he said. “We think it’s a great idea that there soon will be a senior executive for unmanned systems that works directly for the (FAA) administrator. This single person is going to be charged with setting a research plan to attack all those problems we’ve got toward full integration.”

Poss also explained that this legislation is important to the six FAA-designated UAS test sites because it gives them a way forward.

“The legislation specifies that commercial UAS operators are going to have to get their aircraft certified at the test sites before they can get a license to operate,” he noted. “Obviously, this assures that we’ll be working with the test sites to make sure we’ve got the right rules, the rules are backed up by solid research and that we’re doing everything safely.”

However—even before news of the legislation broke—there was a cautionary note sounded by Dallas Brooks, director of UAS research and development for New Mexico State University's Physical Science Laboratory, during the AUVSI Unmanned Systems 2015 conference in Atlanta. He noted that when you ask Congress for help, sometimes what you get isn’t what you asked for.

In other words, as a bill works its way through committees and both houses of Congress, there are ample opportunities for people to amend it for any number of reasons. Just because you put in the ingredients for Italian sausage doesn’t prevent you from ending up with pepperoni. That’s just how the political process works.

Mark Dombroff, an attorney with the McKenna Long & Aldridge law firm who specializes in aviation and UAS practice, made a similar point this week in a blog he wrote for MSNBC called “What to do about commercial drones.”

“The FAA needs more funding and resources to do the job right,” Dombroff wrote. “What Congress ought to be doing instead of enacting operational rules for flying UAS is give the needed money to the FAA – and then step back.”

Dombroff argues that the FAA has proven its ability to safely regulate aircraft. What it needs now are the time and resources to make certain that the job of safely incorporating UAS into the national airspace is done correctly.

“If Congress really wants to make a contribution, they should pass a law which focuses on offenders and makes illegal UAS operation a federal criminal offense,” Dombroff wrote in his blog.

It’s a lesson that’s sometimes difficult to learn in politics: Be careful about what you wish for.