The U.S. House of Representatives announced, at the end of last month, passage of the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act by an overwhelming majority: 393 to 13. The Act includes a host of provisions relevant to the drone industry and in particular opens the door to an easier future for drone delivery programs.
Lost in much of the publicity surrounding this admittedly important legislative action is an issue of key importance to government agencies and operators of critical infrastructure who are increasingly concerned about safety and security issues presented by drone use. This issue concerns the distinction between commercial and recreational use and the extent to which local government may regulate drone use without regard to the character of such use. For example, a drone flying over a crowded toll plaza during rush hour may cause safety and security problems regardless of whether the drone is flown commercially or recreationally.
The law has always been, and remains unclear on the ability to regulate recreational drone use. The Reauthorization Act may not help. Two amendments to the House bill—both adopted—address the distinction between recreational and commercial use. But the two amendments may be in conflict with each other and, if both are included in the final Bill, could cause legal headaches.
The amendments are by Congressmen DeFazio and Sanford. Without getting too far into the details, they take different approaches as to the FAA’s authority to regulate “model aircraft”—which arguably already includes recreational drones. The DeFazio amendment would more overtly bring such recreational drone use within the ambit of FAA jurisdiction while the Sanford amendment likely will make it more difficult to regulate recreational use.
It will be important to monitor whether and how this issue is reflected in any final bill.