Americans are intrigued by the idea of deliveries no longer arriving at their doorstep by van, but via the sky. Wall Street is abuzz with the prospect of an emerging multi-billion-dollar industry. And regulators are grappling with how to encourage yet harness safely its potential.
We are in the nascent stages of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) — or drones — completely transforming how we do business, deliver services and transport people. It is an exciting and uncharted era, and one we must allow to take off.
Reminiscent of the first Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, this Technological Revolution of the 21st century is reshaping the economic and cultural landscape. Just as smart phones and social media have re-invented telecommunications, drones are remaking commercial industries from agriculture and infrastructure, to energy and entertainment. Because drones are increasing efficiency for both private businesses and public agencies while also being cost-effective, wide-scale deployment is on the not-too-distant horizon.
Since 1926, the federal government has served as manager of the national airspace, and in the past decade Congress has charged the Federal Aviation Administration with researching, developing and testing drone operations in the system. Federal safety regulators are currently working with the UAS industry to resolve some of the most vexing challenges, including integration with commercial airliners, beyond line of sight use, nighttime operations and flights over people.
As the past chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee and author of the 2012 law requiring UAS integration, I instilled the FAA with this authority because only the federal government — working with industry — has the resources and expertise necessary to safely accomplish the monumental task at hand. Bipartisan majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate agreed. Recent proposals in Congress, however, would unravel current law and the significant progress made toward integration under the guise of each state’s sovereign right.
Protecting Interstate Commerce: A Federal Job
As a Republican, I generally view Washington-driven edicts with skepticism and most federal mandates as overreach. For many public policy issues facing our country, deference to states’ rights is appropriate. The diversity of each state, from its physical landscape to its cultural heritage and political makeup, reaffirms that a one-size-fits-all approach is not the solution for the United States. This is not an absolute, however, and specific sectors such as transportation require a holistic approach.
Just last year the Republican-controlled Congress imposed a federal standard that superseded various state regulations to protect interstate commerce and system users, this time for commercial fishing vessels. In 2006, a federal court in California ruled that the release of ballast water, deck wash, rain runoff and other incidental discharges from commercial vessels less than 79 feet in length must be regulated under the Clean Water Act. Twenty-eight states subsequently added their own, often contradictory, regulations.
Thus, a tour boat operator traveling down the Hudson River would be subject to competing regulations from two states and several federal agencies as it passed the Statue of Liberty, all because rain water from a passing storm washed off its deck. Compounding the legal quandary, daily fines of up to $32,000 per vessel would have been imposed if Congress had not agreed to a permanent moratorium — an agreement with broad bipartisan support even from staunch states’ rights advocates.
The next battle over federalism has us looking to the skies, far below the clouds. Forty-four states have already passed legislation impacting UAS operations, ranging from simple studies to strict limitations of use. If left as a patchwork of state regulations and local prerogatives, businesses and users will not be able to legitimately operate drones without fear of legal repercussions and financial loss. The American economy at large would enjoy no measurable benefit despite the arrival of this revolutionary technology.
Many public policy initiatives are best left to the states to decide — but regulating the national airspace is not one. The FAA and its federal partners are best suited to continue to oversee the safe integration of drones at any and all altitudes. Air space — like rivers — traverses across localities without being confined to boundaries. Varying standards for UAS operation from state to state or county to county or, conceivably, town to town would stunt most of this technology’s commercial and recreational uses. In emergencies, lifesaving operations such as disaster response and medical transport would be hindered.
Drones cannot bring benefit where they cannot fly; we must not ground this opportunity before it even takes flight.
Frank LoBiondo is former chairman of the House Subcommittee on Aviation and now CEO of LoBo Strategies LLC. He is an adviser to PrecisionHawk Inc., a UAS company based in Raleigh, N.C.