So-called avigation easements would allow state and local governments to create drone toll lanes in the sky. Not only does this threaten to create a complex and costly system for commercial drone operators to navigate, it also directly challenges federal control of the airspace. That challenge could lead to what former FAA Administrator Michael Huerta called a “patchwork quilt” of drone regulations across the country: and would undermine federal efforts to establish clear regulations based on safety.
Drone Federalism isn’t new – but it’s an issue that crops up repeatedly, on both sides of the aisle. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein’s “Drone Federalism Act” was among the first, introduced in 2017: most recently, Republican Senator Lee has introduced new versions. These efforts, says AUVSI, are a disaster – one that could kill the industry.
AUVSI has a long record of challenging efforts to weaken federal authority of the airspace, including opposition to federal and state attempts to give states and/or local government the ability to regulate drones. That is a nonstarter for the drone industry and the emerging Advanced Air Mobility (AAM)/Urban Air Mobility (UAM) industry. A patchwork of 50 states with 50 different sets of rules would be a disaster for industry, weakening strong federal safety standards and imposing tremendous costs on consumers and drone operators.
No Drone Toll Lanes
Accordingly, AUVSI vigorously opposes any and all attempts to harm safety and remove airspace regulatory authority from the FAA. That issue puts AUVSI directly at odds with legislative proposals like those from Senator Lee at the federal level and a number of state bills currently introduced including proposals in Texas, Louisiana, West Virginia and Mississippi. Some of the state bills, however, go much further than simply addressing federalism and also propose state and local control though so-called “avigation easements,” or what are essentially toll lanes in the sky for drones. This is not an entirely new concept – it is derived from a report written by a DC think tank – but since its inception, aviation toll lane proposals have been universally opposed by the UAS and AAM industries. The drone toll model is perhaps a money-maker for some companies that want to get in on the front-end of airspace management and charge taxes or fees for access, however, it is a poison pill for the nascent commercial UAS industry, and the yet-to-be realized AAM marketplace. Taxing industry for access to low-altitude airspace before the industry has yet to engage in widespread commercial operations, and for most companies, turn a profit, would kill the industry and its innovative approach to revolutionizing business.
Drone federalism, avigation easements, and other efforts by local governments to regulate drones ultimately hurt the communities that they are trying to protect, as well as the drone industry. It’s up to all industry stakeholders to educate governments in their communities – and to ensure that they demonstrate safe, useful, and beneficial drone use.