Issue Brief

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (“Drone”) Use In Public Power Utility Operations

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Summary

Unmanned aerial vehicles (“drones”) can be very useful to public power utilities in assessing storm damage, surveying distribution and transmission equipment, and supporting construction and repair. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules allow drone use in some circumstances, but these rules generally preclude operations beyond visual line-of-sight, over long distances, or at night—circumstances in which drones are particularly helpful. The American Public Power Association (Association or APPA) believes that Congress and the FAA should take greater steps to facilitate drone use in utility operations to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and safety of utility operations.

Background

Drones are a particularly cost-effective and safe way for electric utilities to assess storm damage, survey distribution and transmission equipment, and support construction and repair. They have the potential to replace costly conventional inspection techniques with streamlined, automated inspection processes that may be more precise and less cumbersome than existing technology. Some public power utilities already deploy drones in routine surveys of electric power equipment and support of construction and repair, and others are investigating how to use drones. However, FAA regulations have not kept pace with this evolving technology and, in many cases, do not enable utility users to unleash the potential that drones offer to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of infrastructure inspection and disaster recovery efforts. In fact, until 2016, the law did not explicitly provide for the integration of commercial drone operation into the national airspace.

Congressional and Regulatory Action

As required in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, the FAA released final rules on June 21, 2016, for commercial operation of small unmanned aircraft systems (i.e., drones). These rules, referred to collectively as “Part 107,” made it easier for businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies to use drones for a variety of purposes. However, these rules do not allow users to operate beyond visual line-of-sight, at night, or over people, nor do they establish clear guidance for operating during emergencies. They also do not clearly set forth a process to allow owners of critical infrastructure to deem airspace over that infrastructure a “no-fly” zone for drone operations by private citizens. A number of public power utilities are operating drones for infrastructure inspection and emergency recovery under Part 107, but these regulatory limitations may interfere with the widespread integration of drones into the planning and recovery efforts of electric utilities and implementation of security measures to protect critical infrastructure.

On July 15, 2016, the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016 (FESSA) was signed into law. Among other things, this legislation included new aviation safety provisions and multiple guidelines pertaining to drones, including directing the FAA to issue rules enabling the use of drones during certain emergencies and disaster response efforts, as well as beyond visual line-of-sight and at night. The legislation also directed the agency to develop a process for the prevention of drone use around critical infrastructure, such as electric generation and transmission facilities. Despite these efforts, FESSA did not go far enough to encourage widespread use of drones in utility operations, nor did it set a deadline for the creation of regulations with respect to critical infrastructure.

In 2017, the Senate Commerce, Science, & Transportation and House Transportation & Infrastructure Committees passed long-term FAA reauthorization bills. However, neither the full House nor the full Senate ever considered these bills due to political pressures regarding the potential privatization of the national air traffic control system. Instead, Congress passed a short-term extension of the FAA through the end of fiscal year 2018 as part of an omnibus spending bill, signed by President Trump on March 23, 2018.

In the fall of 2017, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began developing infrastructure selection methodology to support the 2016 FAA reauthorization law’s goal of restricting drone usage over designated critical infrastructure. APPA submitted comments on DHS’s proposed methodology to ensure that critical public power infrastructure is protected in any future rules, but neither DHS nor the FAA has acted on this guidance. In May 2018, FAA announced its ten local and state “drone partners” for its Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program. This program was initiated pursuant to a presidential memorandum issued by President Trump in October 2017 to encourage state, local, and tribal governments to assist federal regulators in establishing a regulatory framework that safely encourages innovation and drone integration.

On April 27, 2018, the House passed a long-term FAA reauthorization bill. H.R. 4 seeks to encourage the FAA to expand the ability for operators to use drones by requiring it to create a more streamlined process to obtain a waiver for operations beyond visual line-of-sight, at night, or over people. The bill does not include problematic language APPA opposes to give the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) jurisdiction over commercial drone users for violation of nebulous privacy rules or to partially cede the FAA’s authority to control the national airspace to cities and localities. The bill includes provisions supported by APPA that would regulate recreational drone users and require the FAA to institute a rulemaking on the creation of “no-fly” zones for drones operating over critical infrastructure.

Soon after passage of H.R. 4, the Senate Commerce Committee reported its previously-passed reauthorization bill, S. 1405, out of committee for consideration by the full Senate. The bill includes a concerning privacy provision not included in the House bill that would give the FTC jurisdiction to enforce privacy policies. The Senate bill does not include language found in the House bill to direct the FAA to issue rules to prevent drones from being flown over critical infrastructure. The Senate may begin debate on its bill as early as July since the FAA needs be reauthorized before the short-term reauthorization expires on October 1, 2018.

American Public Power Association Position

The Association urges Congress to move forward with reauthorization legislation that will improve drone regulations for utility infrastructure inspection, such as allowing drone operators to fly drones beyond visual line-of-sight, at night, and over people, and encouraging utility drone usage during emergency recovery and disaster situations. APPA also supports legislation and regulations that allow public power utilities to protect critical assets by outlawing the operation of drones by private citizens over and around critical infrastructure. Public power will continue to work with Congress, DHS, and the FAA on the development of new laws and regulations that keep pace with this rapidly evolving technology.