FAA's Drone Advisory Committee Lacks Buy-In By Cities, States

 - July 21, 2017, 4:38 PM
CNN Aerial Imagery announced a waiver from FAA under Part 107 for closed-set operations over people. (Photo: CNN)

Updated with statement by the office of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.

State and local governments in large part are not participating in an FAA advisory group effort to define “roles and responsibilities” they could take on to regulate small drones. At the same time, associations representing them support legislation introduced in Congress that would give state and local governments blanket authority to issue restrictions on drones that are flown up to 200 feet above the ground.

During a July 21 teleconference meeting of the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee (DAC), a co-chairman of its roles and responsibilities task group said major associations representing state and local governments have passed on joining the group. “From my perspective we want everyone in the room who can join us,” said Brendan Schulman, vice president of policy and legal affairs with top drone manufacturer DJI. “I think just about every association out there—I understand there are seven main ones—have been offered that, and in many cases have declined. I’m not sure why.”

There is some input by state and local government interests. Schulman noted that John Eagerton of the National Association of State Aviation Officials serves with him as a co-chairman of the task group, which plans to deliver recommendations at the next full DAC meeting on November 8. Among other members are representatives of the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Association of Counties and a Rhode Island state legislator.

But Kathryn Angotti, who serves as director of state and federal legislative affairs for San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, a DAC member, suggested that the task group would be more effective if it included more representatives of cities and law enforcement agencies. “It would be our preference and beneficial for the whole process to have more of an equal, even maybe one-to-one, representation of industry…to local and state government,” she said.

Responding to Angotti’s remarks, Margaret Jenny of advisory organization RTCA, which manages the DAC on behalf of the FAA, said San Francisco decided to serve as an observer on the task group as opposed to being a full member, "but obviously (we're) happy to have you there and get your input. From RTCA's perspective, we're thrilled at the mayor's outreach." RTCA understands that municipalities have resource constraints and it is looking into other ways to solicit their participation, Jenny said. (Following publication of this article, a spokesperson for the San Francisco's mayor's office stated: "Mayor Lee has never declined membership of Task Group 1," the roles and responsibilities task group.)

At the previous DAC meeting in early May, Lee said small drones present cities with issues of zoning, privacy and law enforcement they need to manage. Later that month, U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) announced the Drone Federalism Act of 2017, which would give state, local and tribal governments authority now held by the FAA to restrict drone operations below 200 feet agl or within 200 feet of a structure.

According to Feinstein, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties support the legislation, which has been referred to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. The National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Association of State Aviation Officials have expressed “support for the principles” of the bill.

Lee introduced a “Resolution in Support of Drone Federalism” that was adopted at the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors held in Miami Beach, Fla., in late June. It expresses the mayors’ support of federal legislation allowing cities to place restrictions on drones operating below 200 feet agl.

Small drones “are significantly different from manned aviation and require different rules since drones take-off, land and primarily operate in low-altitude airspace extremely close to people, structures and events,” states a preamble. “[T]he local needs of cities vary within and across states and federal regulators will never have sufficient information or enforcement resources to know when conditions on the ground may make the low altitude operation of a drone unsafe due to local public gatherings, local sporting events or emergency response.”

While the jurisdictional debate over drones remains unsettled, progress toward wider-scale commercial operations continued under the FAA’s current regulatory framework. On July 20, CNN Aerial Imagery said it has received the first waiver under the agency’s Part 107 regulation to fly drones over people for closed-set movie and television filming. CNN previously received the first-ever waiver to fly drones over members of the public for newsgathering purposes.