FAA reauthorization: A step toward improving utility drone use

Utilities can use unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, as a cost-effective, safe way to site infrastructure, inspect facilities, and recover from emergencies. However, they need to follow safety and operational rules set by the Federal Aviation Administration. The now 60-year-old FAA must periodically be “reauthorized” by Congress, which can instruct the FAA to take certain actions during this process. In this year’s reauthorization, the American Public Power Association is advocating for rules that will expand public power utilities’ ability to safely and effectively use drones.

After a series of difficult negotiations, the House passed a full five-year reauthorization (H.R. 4) in April 2018. The bill included a few provisions addressing issues we raised with congressional staff. The Senate is considering passing its own version of the bill in the summer. If the Senate accepts the drone provisions from the House bill, the final FAA reauthorization will bring several key developments in how utilities can use drones.

First, the bill recognizes the FAA as the best entity to safely manage the national airspace. The House considered a provision that would have divided the FAA’s control of the national airspace across all states and localities. Several groups, the Association included, expressed concerns about how such a law could create a “patchwork” of local regulations that could be cumbersome for drone users, such as public power utilities. For instance, we explained that a utility using drones across multiple jurisdictions would be required to keep track of many different rules about where, when, and how they can fly. As a result of this advocacy, Congress decided not to include this provision in the reauthorization bill.

The House-passed version of the reauthorization would require the FAA to expand its waiver process. A waiver is required for drone users who want to use a drone at night, over people, or beyond the pilot’s “visual line of sight,” which can be important for utilities that want to use drones for day-to-day operations. This process has historically been challenging for utilities — and only one utility, Xcel Energy, has ever gotten a waiver from the rules. Improving the waiver application process would allow utilities to more easily deploy drones following outages or disruptions or during major events where access to infrastructure might be limited or compromised.

A provision in H.R. 4 codifies a “partnership” program between the FAA and state and local governments. Through this provision, the House envisions natural collaboration, such as between a utility and local law enforcement in using drones. The program was initially put in place by President Trump through an executive memorandum in 2017, and it requires the FAA to work with 10 state and local entities to draft better drone regulations. While none of the chosen partners is a utility, the sites include cities and law enforcement agencies. This program might offer insight into where and when these groups can partner with utilities to use drones. It might also highlight areas for improvement in drone use regulations, including for public power.

Utilities are interested in seeing rules about creating “no-fly zones” over critical infrastructure. Just ask Brandon Edwards at JEA, a public power utility in Jacksonville, Florida. Edwards has a table covered in wayward drones that have been found on JEA property. Beyond the nuisance, a drone flying over critical infrastructure has the potential to create significant safety and reliability issues.  

The Association pushed Congress to revive a section of the 2016 reauthorization that required the FAA to work on a “no-fly” process for airspace over critical infrastructure that was never implemented. This work led to an amendment to H.R. 4 that would require the FAA to begin the process to create physical security protections for critical infrastructure within one year. This is a prudent approach, because it does not require the FAA to rush to create a rule that might not be effective. Instead, it will create an iterative process to identify critical infrastructure across all industries. Through this action, utilities can work with the FAA to ensure protection of facilities without identifying all critical infrastructure on a map, which could create security concerns locally and even nationally.

Overall, the FAA reauthorization bill addresses several significant challenges and opportunities for drone use. As lawmakers continue the conversation on better, safer, and more efficient drone rules, we will be sure that public power has a voice in that discussion.