Sen. Warner among Senators to present bill supporting commercial drone use

(WDBJ7) Drone delivery could be one step closer to a reality after a bill presented Thursday by U.S. Senator Mark Warner, who represents Virginia.

It's not so much for the benefit of private drone fliers who use the unmanned aircraft for fun.

The bill, the Safe Drone Act of 2017, would make it easier for commercial flights, like delivering goods or food.

Experts at Virginia Tech are excited about the new bill presented Thursday.

The bill creates more rules, but that's good because commercial users need approval and policies to get out and fly.

Mark Blanks is the Director of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership at Virginia Tech.

He explained, "The FAA has been working at the fastest pace as they possibly can, but they've also had some limitations on what they've been able to do. The recent 2-for-1 rule from the Trump Administration has helped reduce the ability of them to implement new regulations without having to extract a couple more."

The bill would allow the FAA to talk more about things like air traffic management, safety, security, and privacy.

Senator Mark Warner said about the bill he presented, “Not since the nascent days of the cell phone industry have I seen technology with as much transformative potential as unmanned systems. As the UAS industry continues to develop at a rapid pace, we need to ensure the U.S. is well positioned to keep pace with the technology so this development doesn’t just go overseas. The Safe DRONE Act takes important steps forward to safely integrate this technology into commercial use and further harness its potential.”

Warner wasn't alone in presenting the bill.

Three other Senators, John Hoeven (R-ND), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), and Dean Heller (R-NV), joined him.

“The UAS industry needs legal and regulatory certainty, both to realize the benefits of this technology and to ensure its safe private and commercial use,” Sen. Hoeven said. “Our bipartisan bill supports the integration of UAS into the national airspace and helps continue our nation’s leadership in this emerging industry, particularly through the extension of research at the FAA’s national test sites, the development of an unmanned traffic management system and the creation of a UAS training initiative at community colleges.”

“For years, the state of Nevada has been leading in drone innovation, presenting our state with opportunities to seek new ways to innovate and grow our economy,” said Senator Cortez Masto. “This new legislation will allow us to harness the economic benefits of unmanned aircraft systems, and its potential to improve our way of life. By training a skilled workforce, enhancing the safety and security of drones, and providing essential funding for research development, Nevada can diversify its economy and continue to be at the forefront of this revolutionary technology in a safe and secure manner.”

“With Nevada leading the nation in unmanned aircraft system technology and home to one of several UAS test sites, it’s important that federal policy keeps pace with innovation to ensure that Nevada remains at the forefront of cutting-edge technologies,” said Heller. “The Safe DRONE Act is a bipartisan effort that will advance the UAS industry so that our country and the Silver State can continue to reap their economic benefits, and I’m proud to support it.”

Blanks said of U.S. Senators from both parties working on the Act, "The bipartisanship demonstrates that the different states, different political spectrums are seeing that commercial value of this technology."

But the legislation will need to be discussed and voted on.

Blanks was asked, as an expert, to play devils advocate and explain why would someone not support the act.

He responded, "There are a couple of challenges that this bill will face. It allocates funding for test sites, which can be controversial. There are also some people that believe that Congress shouldn't be telling the FAA what to do, that maybe the FAA should figure this out on their own. So there may be a little bit of a push back, but overall I think the overwhelming sense of the industry is that it's going to be supported."

At Virginia Tech's campus, the bill will help researchers, specifically. It would extend the test site for another five years and provide funding to it, allowing research and development to grow.

Virginia is home to one of six FAA-approved sites across the country where researchers are testing the safest and most effective ways to incorporate UAS into the existing airspace. The UAS test site at Virginia Tech recently announced a partnership with Google’s parent company to research food delivery using unmanned aerial vehicles.

Among its provisions, the Safe DRONE Act includes language to help build a trained and professional workforce in the UAS industry, advances work on the development of a low-altitude safe and secure traffic management system, and directs robust collaboration to address critical needs such as a comprehensive security policy and a long-term plan for spectrum and communications infrastructure needs.

A 2015 report by the Teal Group, an aerospace and defense market analysis firm based in Fairfax, VA, estimated that UAS production accounts for more than $4 billion of total economic activity annually and is expected to grow to $14 billion annually by 2025, totaling $93 billion.

The Safe DRONE Act of 2017:

• Develops a Trained UAS Workforce. Directs the Secretary of Transportation to designate a consortium of Community and Technical Colleges aimed at expanding the capacity of those colleges to train students for career opportunities in the UAS industry, including maintenance and repair, flight operations related to specific applications and data analysis.

• Coordinates Federal UAS Spectrum Policy. Establishes an inter-agency working group, with a broad array of stakeholders, tasked with developing a cohesive federal policy to address the near-term and long-term communications and spectrum needs to facilitate safe integration of UAS into the national airspace system.

• Advances Unmanned Traffic Management. Directs the Secretary of Transportation, in coordination with NASA, to develop an implementation plan within one year to achieve full operational capability of UAS traffic management.

• Enhances UAS Safety and Security. Establishes an inter-agency working group involving relevant federal security agencies to develop recommendations for enhanced safety and security of expanded small UAS operations beyond visual line of sight and over people, and requires the FAA release rules within one year of enactment.

• Provides UAS Registration Authority. Gives Congressional authorization for FAA to continue registration and marking requirement for small UAS to promote safe and responsible use, but provides certain exemptions for the model aircraft community.

• Extends Research Opportunities at UAS Test Sites. Extends Congressional authorization of FAA-designated UAS test sites through FY 2024, and allocates $14 million in federal funding for research and development through the test sites.

• Supports Emergency Operations Guidelines. Emphasizes Congressional support for clearly defined FAA rules allowing for civil and public operators to utilize UAS in assisting emergency response operations, such as firefighting, search and rescue and post-disaster infrastructure restoration efforts.

• Continues Development of UAS Industry. Exempts rules primarily related to UAS operations from the President’s “one-in, two-out” Executive Order to allow for continued development of the UAS industry through establishing new federal rules for operations.

“This legislation includes several key provisions to further the nation’s global lead in commercial unmanned aircraft systems. These initiatives will help expand the training, research, and public policy needed to support the thousands of jobs the industry is forecast to create, and integrate the thousands of UAS that are anticipated to be flying in our nation’s airspace during the next several years. We appreciate the senators’ efforts to enable the expansion of commercial UAS so that businesses and individuals across the country can realize its full potential,” said Brian Wynne, President & CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

“USAV is very pleased that Senator Warner has introduced the Safe Drone Act of 2017. The Act addresses key issues that need to be resolved in order for commercial use of UAS to grow in Virginia and across the United States. USAV encourages Congress to move forward on the Act and we look forward to working with Senator Warner in his effort to protect a vibrant business climate for unmanned systems,” said Kevin Pomfret, Executive Director of the Unmanned Systems Association of Virginia (USAV).

A copy of the Safe Drone Act of 2017 is available to read under the Related Links section of this article.