President Obama signed a $63.4 billion Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill on Feb. 14 that opens the door for integrated commercial and civil use of unmanned aerial drones in U.S. airspace.
The bill is aimed primarily at funding the FAA and its efforts to establish a new national navigation system for commercial aircraft. Airlines could invest as much as $10 billion of their own in a next-generation navigation system that would switch the nation’s air traffic control system from aging ground-based radar to satellite-based GPS, allowing more route efficiencies, traffic reductions and safety management.
However, unmanned aircraft system manufacturers hailed the bill as a “Valentine’s Day present” that includes important provisions that integrate unmanned aerial systems (UAS) into the national airspace system and, in some cases, into the hands of emergency responders’ within 90 days.
The new law requires the FAA to come up with a comprehensive integration plan within nine months and to create a five-year UAS roadmap. It also requires expedited access for public users, like law enforcement, firefighters and emergency responders’ use of the vehicles, as well as allowing first responders to fly very small — 4.4-pound — vehicles within 90 days, if they meet certain requirements, said Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).
According the association, unmanned aerial system technology was still in its infancy in 2003, when the last FAA funding bill was signed and hadn’t yet proven its value in battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan in providing unprecedented levels of information. The new law sets a deadline of Sept. 15, 2015 for full integration of the systems into U.S. airspace.
According to the association, the goal is to get law enforcement and firefighters immediate access to start flying small systems to increase public safety.
“Technology is advancing to the point where we now know these systems can reliably fly. The next step is to work on the regulations that govern the rules of the sky to ensure that unmanned aircraft do no harm to other manned aircraft or to people or property on the ground,” said AUVSI’s President and Chief Executive Officer, Michael Toscano.