With more and more drones taking to the sky, the tussle continues over how best to regulate the machines and the Federal Aviation Agency’s (FAA) role in doing so. Adding to the confusion: a fresh ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit saying the FAA may not require a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) registry.
In a statement, the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA), says “agricultural aviators are deeply concerned about their ability to fly safely in air space where pilots could encounter any unmanned aircraft, be it commercial or otherwise. A valuable component of the FAA's drone registration program is the opportunity to educate the general population about the hazards of careless drone operations, and we believe that the FAA's drone registration program serves to protect everyone in the air and on land.”
What are aerial applicators’ options now?
“There hasn’t been a lot of time to come up with a full game plan yet,” says Andrew Moore, NAA executive director. “Registering UAVs is something we support because it establishes some accountability for how these machines will be controlled. With the U.S. Court of Appeals having overturned the FAA’s doing that – saying the FAA didn’t have the authority to register, basically – there has to be another avenue.”
The NAAA isn’t the only aviation group that supported the registry. “Among those we were alongside are the Helicopter Association International, and Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, probably the largest UAV trade association. So, even commercial UAV interest supported the registry.
“We’re rather surprised by the development but I think the remedy will now be statutory change. Congress has previously limited the FAA’s ability to regulate hobby aircraft, which includes UAVs. With the FAA reauthorization – similar to the farm bill, which has to be negotiated every five years, or so – it’s an opportunity to revisit the registry. The current FAA reauthorization expires Sept. 30. I think there will be a push from aviation and UAV associations aimed at lawmakers for a new statute.”
Who was behind the suit in the Court of Appeals?
“It was a UAV hobbyist interest, a recreational drone pilot. He argued the FAA didn’t have the power to make him register because Congress said the agency couldn’t regulate model aircraft. And you could certainly make that interpretation, something the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit agreed with.”
It’s now up to Congress “to make a clearer law or grant the FAA authority to regulate recreational UAVs. I believe in the last FAA reauthorization there is language that provides more relaxed leeway for recreational UAVs if they follow the Academy of Aeronautics guidelines with more authority for the FAA to regulate commercial UAVs.
“I think now you’ll see a lot of people, whether manned or unmanned UAV interest – especially commercial unmanned – asking Congress for a change. People understand such regulations need to be in place for our airspace. It just makes sense for commercial UAVs and users to have to register, for the ability for the (drones) to be tracked to enforce laws if they’re to have such access to airspace.”
For agriculture, the main concerns are typically commercial interests. “Under the current FAA rules, if a farmer is using a UAV to monitor his crops, he’d have to get a license and registration.”
Is the Department of Homeland Security making more noise about this?
“They could be making noise and I don’t know about it. I do believe there’ll be an aviation advisory committee looking at developing procedures for both tracking and identification of UAVs. What’s clear with the court’s finding is Congress is going to have to step in.”