Drones May Have Limited Range, But Regulatory Coordination Doesn’t Have To

By Former Rep. James T. Walsh, contributor, and Rod Hall (Originally published in The Hill)

Safe integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the national airspace is one of the foremost policy challenges of 2016. But while Capitol Hill has largely focused on the regulatory efforts of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), developments overseas will also shape the future of the dynamic UAS industry in the year ahead.

Just before the end of the year, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) released its technical framework for UAS regulation across the 28 member states of the European Union. The framework will serve as the basis for rule-making activities at the EU and member-state levels in 2016 and 2017.

The EASA framework shares important commonalities with the proposed regulations for small UAS released by the FAA in 2015, including registration and operator certification requirements for certain flights. However, what EASA terms its “proportionate and risk based” approach would provide relatively less restrictive regulation of UAS operations conducted with lightweight, low-powered aircraft flying within the line of sight of the operator. These operations would largely be exempt from registration and certification requirements under the European proposal, although EASA has indicated that it may require geo-fencing or other technologies to impose operating limitations on small UAS.

Like the FAA, the EASA faces the challenge of developing regulations to apply across multiple jurisdictions at a time when many localities are introducing their own UAS policies. A recent study by The New York Times found that 20 U.S. states and several major cities enacted new restrictions on drones in 2015 alone. A number of EU member states have taken similar steps. The work being done by FAA and EASA is important to avoid a web of confusing regulations that confuses recreational and commercial operators of UAS.

Both the FAA and EASA have taken additional steps toward harmonization by teaming with civil aviation authorities from around the world as part of the Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems (JARUS) initiative, which aims to develop common technical, safety and operational standards for UAS. JARUS complements the similar efforts of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which plans to release UAS regulations to its 191 member-states by the end of 2018.

U.S. policymakers should stay informed about these and other international regulatory developments, as global coordination can only brighten prospects of the growing commercial UAS industry. Standards and regulations that are harmonized to the greatest extent possible will streamline compliance for entrepreneurs and help drive further innovation in the development of UAS products and their commercial applications.

More importantly, consistency is critical as a matter of public safety. International coordination to set common, rigorous standards for the safe development and operation of UAS will help continue to ensure that the promise of UAS industry doesn’t compromise the safety of those in the air or on the ground.

Policymakers should not lose sight of the fact that U.S. airspace is the world’s most complex, with a range of different users and features that demand special consideration in the context of UAS regulations. However, awareness of regulatory activities in Europe and beyond will provide Congress, the FAA and others in the aviation community with additional perspectives and opportunities for developing policies that strike the appropriate balance of fostering innovation while maintaining the highest standards of safety and security.

Walsh is a former U.S. representative from New York, serving from 1989 to 2009. He is currently a government affairs counselor for K&L Gates LLP in Washington. Hall served as assistant administrator for government affairs at the Federal Aviation Administration and is currently a government affairs adviser at K&L Gates. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of K&L Gates, its partners or employees.

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