US senators introduce bi-partisan legislation to speed BVLOS drone flight approvals

US drone industry trade associations have warmly welcomed the move by U.S. Senators Mark R. Warner (D-VA) and John Thune (R-SD) to introduce the Increasing Competitiveness for American Drones Act of 2023, legislation to streamline the approvals process for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone flights and clear the way for drones to be used for commercial transport of goods across the country.

According to a trade industry briefing document, currently, each aircraft and each BVLOS operation that takes flight requires unmanned aerial system (UAS) operators to seek waivers from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but the FAA has not laid out any consistent set of criteria for the granting of waivers, making the process for approving drone flights slow and unpredictable. The bipartisan Increasing Competitiveness for American Drones Act will require the FAA to issue a new rule allowing BVLOS operations under certain circumstances.

“Drones have the ability to transform so much of the way we do business. Beyond package delivery, drones can change the way we grow crops, manage disasters, maintain our infrastructure, and administer medicine,” said Sen. Warner. “If we want the drones of tomorrow to be manufactured in the U.S. and not in China, we have to start working today to integrate them into our airspace. Revamping the process for approving commercial drone flight will catapult the United States into the 21st century, allowing us to finally start competing at the global level as technological advancements make drone usage ever more common.”

“Drones have the potential to transform the economy, with innovative opportunities for transportation and agriculture that would benefit rural states like South Dakota,” said Sen. Thune. “I’m proud to support this legislation that provides a clear framework for the approval of complex drone operations, furthering the integration of these aircraft into the National Airspace System.”

The bill requires the FAA to establish a “risk methodology,” according to the briefing document,  which will be used to determine what level of regulatory scrutiny is required:

  • Operators of small UAS under 55lbs simply have to declare that they conducted a risk assessment and meet the standard, subject to audit compliance by the FAA.
  • Operators of UAS between 55lbs and 1320lbs must submit materials based on the risk assessment to the FAA to seek a “Special Airworthiness Certificate.” UAS in this category may be limited to operating no more than 400 feet above ground level.
  • Finally, operators of UAS over 1320lbs must undergo the full “type certification” process—the standard approval process for crewed aircraft.

In addition, the Increasing Competitiveness for American Drones Act would create the position of “Associate Administrator of UAS Integration” as well as a UAS Certification Unit that would have the sole authority to issue all rulemakings, certifications, and waivers. This new organizational structure would create central rulemaking body for UAS, allowing for a more uniform process.

“The Commercial Drone Alliance applauds the introduction of the Increasing Competitiveness for American Drones Act of 2023, and we commend and thank Senator Warner and Senator Thune for their leadership on these important issues,” said an association statement. “While the U.S. has lagged behind other countries in developing and deploying UAS, this legislation provides the U.S. with the opportunity to reestablish its prominence as a global leader in advanced aviation and compete more effectively in the global economy. In particular, the Increasing Competitiveness for American Drones Act of 2023 provides necessary direction to the FAA that will enable beyond visual line of site (BVLOS) UAS operations, which is critical to scaling the use of UAS for use cases ranging from infrastructure inspection and agriculture to fighting wildfires and package delivery. The legislation also will align responsibility with authority within the FAA to allow UAS certification and operational approvals to progress with the focus and attention of a dedicated unit committed to the safe and secure integration of UAS into the National Airspace System.”

“Commercial drone operations provide valuable services to the American public and workforce – but significant regulatory hurdles are hampering these benefits from reaching their fullest potential and jeopardize U.S. global leadership in aviation. The regulatory challenges are not driven by safety, they are hampered by bureaucracy. We accordingly have urged Congress to prioritize drone integration, and we are grateful for the support of Senators Warner and Thune in this cause. AUVSI is proud to endorse this legislation, and we urge Congress to include it as part of their critical work this year to pass a multi-year FAA Reauthorization,” Michael Robbins, Chief Advocacy Officer of the Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), said.

“The Coalition is grateful for the leadership of Senators Thune and Warner, and this bill comes at a pivotal time for the drone industry. Since 2012, Congress has worked to progress the law and regulation around commercial drone use, but now, in 2023, this progress has slowed as regulations and approvals continue to be delayed. With reauthorization of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) programs required by September 30, this year is a critical time for the drone industry,” said The Small UAV Coalition.

Full text of the legislation is available here.

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(Image: Shutterstock)

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