Drone Lobbying Heats Up on Capitol Hill
WASHINGTON — The last time Congress weighed in on rules for nonmilitary drones,in 2012, the flying machines were hardly a hit with consumers. And companies said little about using them for commercial purposes.
Now Congress is set to make a stand again. But this time, hundreds of thousands of recreational drones are in use, and companies like Amazon have their hearts set on using drones to deliver packages — and they are taking their case to Capitol Hill.
The efforts in the halls of Congress are to shape the Federal Aviation Administration’s approach to drone rules on safety and privacy. They are part of a multifront intervention by advocates for broader drone use as well as by their opponents, who argue that the machines pose significant safety and privacy risks. Together, the two sides have quickly emerged as a vocal and passionate contingent in this city.
“Now that there is so much interest and money in drones, everyone wants to get their say” said Ryan Calo, an assistant professor of law at the University of Washington who is focused on robotics. A bill under consideration in Congress “is a way for people who aren’t getting what they want out of the process or getting it fast enough to get their views injected.”
The goals of the drone hobbyists, companies and safety advocates differ in some ways. Hobby groups are trying to peel back recreational registration rules, while airline pilots are pushing for more mandates that drone makers like DJI and GoPro put safety technology on machines. Amazon and Google, which want to use drones for delivery, are asking permission to test their technology. They agree, though, that the F.A.A. is due for fresh guidance on its approach to drone rules.
On Capitol Hill, where much of the attention has turned in recent weeks, lobbyists are focusing on a reauthorization bill for the F.A.A. The bill gives the agency guidance on regulations and funding for projects like commercial drone testing sights. It can also include more specific instructions, like for the agency to strengthen — or loosen — safety and privacy rules for the use of drones.
Lawmakers are close to finishing a draft on the bill, which several congressional aides said would include mandates on drones. A draft could be completed by early February, the aides said. It is unclear if the lobbying efforts will have much effect on lawmakers; aides said various lobbyists who have asked for meetings are asking for a broad set of provisions.
In recent months, lobbyists have scrambled for meetings with officials at the F.A.A., the White House, and a division of NASA that is proposing a drone traffic management system. The Academy of Model Aeronautics, which represents hobbyists, and trade groups for companies like Google and Amazon, are even showing up at city hall hearings in Miami and Los Angeles to influence local rules.
Yet, Amazon and Google clearly see the reauthorization bill as an opportunity to advance their goal of using drones to deliver packages from warehouses to doorsteps. Drone deliveries are now restricted, and proposed rules by the F.A.A. would keep those drones grounded for the foreseeable future. The companies are pushing lawmakers to allow for experimental testing of drone delivery in sparsely populated areas and more research and development of delivery plans, according to Michael E. Drobac, a leader of Akin Gump’s unmanned aerial vehicle lobbying practice, which represents Amazon.
“We expect regulations to come in stages,” Mr. Drobac said. “Any delivery company will look for mechanisms now for delivery in less densely populated areas.”
Amazon and Google have also pushed lawmakers to apply pressure on the F.A.A. to move faster with their first-time rules for commercial drones, Mr. Drobac said. The rules are not expected to allow delivery at first, but lobbyists say it could be an important first step forward in their plans.
“Companies want to be able to benefit from drones by flying beyond visual line of sight, or near congested areas or over people, in a way that is safe,” said Lisa Ellman, a lawyer at Hogan Lovells, which represents commercial drone hardware and software makers. “The F.A.A. is taking steps in that direction, but slowly.”
GoPro, DJI and other makers of recreational drones, meanwhile, are lobbying against more rules. In December, the F.A.A. introduced its mandatory registration system for recreational drone users, and some lawmakers and safety advocates said the agency needs to go further to prevent collisions in the air and to keep users accountable. DJI and GoPro executives sat on the F.A.A.’s task force that came up with recommendations for the registration system that began in December.
The Airline Pilots Association has been urging lawmakers to require point-of-sale registration at retail stores or online. And it is are lobbying for provisions in the reauthorization bill that would require “sense and avoidance” technology that would automatically steer a drone away from a nearby object.
“The proliferation of these vehicles has reached a point where there needs to be a more aggressive approach to safety,” said Tim Canoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association.
Some of those concerns were echoed last week by Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, the group that will oversee the drafting of the F.A.A.’s reauthorization bill. He wrote letters to the F.A.A., Department of Homeland Security, NASA, and Pentagon calling on them to coordinate on drone safety and security.
Every time a drone is spotted “near an airport runway, or used to smuggle contraband over a prison wall, reminds us that this technology poses another kind of threat,” Mr. Nelson wrote. “I ask that your agencies increase collaboration to mitigate the risk.”