‘Must pass’ FAA reauthorization bill opens doors for commercial drones

Pretty soon, it might be time to start taking drone delivery seriously – at least in the United States. The bipartisan Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2017 now requires the Department of Transportation (DOT) to establish a delivery air carrier certificate that would allow for package deliveries by drones. Considered a “must pass” bill when the U.S. Congress returns to session on Sept. 5, the bill could push drone delivery into the mainstream, allowing companies like Amazon the leeway they need to launch their more ambitious drone delivery projects.

The language in the House and Senate FAA reauthorization proposals varies, and will need to be merged, but it’s worth considering the extent to which both bodies agree on the importance of unmanned drone deliveries.

Both bills require the Secretary of Transportation to issue a final rule within one year of enactment, authorizing the transport of deliveries by operators of commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Both bills stipulate that the final version should provide for a UAS air carrier certificate, and a corresponding certification process for individuals or companies seeking to engage in drone deliveries.

The Senate version, for example, requires that the FAA establish a certificate for “the operation of small unmanned aircraft systems to carry property in air transportation, including commercial fleet operations with highly automated unmanned aircraft systems.”

Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, the proposed bill calls for the same “operation of small unmanned aircraft systems to carry property in air transportation, including commercial fleet operations with highly automated unmanned aircraft systems.”

Where the two proposals deviate is in the section describing requirements associated with the UAS certificate, with the Senate outlining more extensive safety, airworthiness, and other requirements for operation than the counterpart House bill.

It’s likely that the congressional compromise will produce a unified bill that runs pretty close to both versions. However, the real question is whether Congress can push the bill through, with the majority party at war with the executive branch, which is also in Republican hands. President Trump, via Twitter, recently called for “a good shutdown in September to fix mess,” referring to upcoming appropriations.

That sort of rhetoric might play well with Trump’s base, but for U.S. industry advocates watching their Chinese rivals, such as JD.com, pull ahead in the drone delivery race, those threats are disconcerting.

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