Drone lobby takes flight on K Street

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Lobbyists in Washington are mobilizing to help ensure that drones soon take flight across the United States.

With the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) racing to craft rules to incorporate unmanned aircraft into national airspace, lobby teams representing everyone from Hollywood studios to farmers are working to influence the outcome.

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Firms that have both legal and advocacy arms say activity on drone regulations has exploded.

“It’s so widespread because it almost has a science-fiction element to it,” said Jack Schenendorf, a former Capitol Hill staffer who worked to prime the Bush administration’s incoming Transportation Department in 2001.

“We’re creating a regulatory scheme where there really isn’t one today,” said Schenendorf, who is now an of counsel at Covington & Burling. “The FAA regulates aircraft, but [drones are] a different animal … they’re going to be making a set of rules and regulations from the ground up, and that’s what has intrigued a lot of people.” 

At least four K Street firms — including Holland & Knight and McKenna Long & Aldridge — have set up practices dedicated to drones in response to client interest.

“Taking a view of the last several years, the discussion has gone from ‘Should we allow drones’ to ‘How do we integrate drones’ because they’re here,” said David Whitestone, the chair of Holland & Knight’s transportation industry practice and a member of the firm’s drone team.

While Congress has directed the FAA to clear the way for the use of commercial drones by 2015, a federal agency watchdog said the deadline could be difficult to achieve.

Calvin Scovel III, the Transportation Department’s inspector general, told a House Transportation panel in February that there are “significant technological barriers” that stand in the way of integrating drones into airspace.

However, on Tuesday, the head of the FAA office tasked with integrating the unmanned aircraft said the agency is working with “several industries” to make way for a limited commercial drone fleet before the agency’s overall rules are finalized.

Jim Williams of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) office made the remarks at an industry trade show in Orlando, Fla., held by The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).

The expedited rules would be created for operators involved in “filmmaking, powerline inspection, precision agriculture and flare stack inspection,” according to a statement, with Williams saying those groups had approached regulators specifically about using drones.

That still leaves room for many K Street firms to court potential clients who want to have a say in how the broader rules are written.

“American ingenuity as it applies to drones is not waiting around for a notice and comment period,” Whitestone said. “The potential use of drones is only accelerating in the commercial space. It’s accelerating faster than the regulatory process.”

The unmanned aircraft business has grown into a multibillion-dollar enterprise, with groups, companies and researchers across the country clamoring for a chance to unlock the potential of the technology.

In the first three months of this year, about 35 groups, companies and universities or municipalities reported lobbying on “drones” or “unmanned aerial systems,” the preferred term of the industry.

While defense contractors Northrop Grumman and Boeing are the major players in debate, the lobbying push on commercial drones has extended far beyond the defense industry.

Other stakeholders — including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the state of Nevada, the Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, Airlines for America, and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association — have also jumped into the discussion.

Some of those groups are concerned about the privacy and safety implications of letting drones buzz through the skies. Lobbyists said they expect dealing with the implications of the technology will generate business for years to come.

One of the biggest backers of drones is Amazon, which in December announced a plan to incorporate drones into its operations, envisioning 30-minute delivery of products purchased off its site. 

The online marketplace has reportedly doubled-down on that promise in recent months, saying that prototypes have gone through several stages of development and could be ready in as little as four years.

One of Amazon’s K Street firms, TwinLogic Strategies, is lobbying on the potential benefits of drone delivery.

Traditional mail services that could see their business take a hit from drone deliveries are not yet lobbying on the issue, according to disclosure records.

“We are one of the leaders in advanced technology and are constantly testing new methods to deliver more efficient service, but we do not see drone deliveries being part of the short-term future,” a UPS spokeswoman said in an email, echoing points made by the company’s chief information officer, David Barnes, last year.

Even though the Obama administration is working to bring drones into U.S. airspace, firms say that Congress is determined to stay in the picture, which leaves the door open for even more lobbying activity.

“We’ve been hearing from staff that this is something they’re interested in, they want to help foster innovation in this space,” said Joel Roberson, another member of Holland & Knight’s drone practice and former aide for the House Judiciary Committee under then-Chairman James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.). 

Lawmakers will be reauthorizing the FAA’s budget next year and, with that legislation, will be able to make tweaks to how the agency regulates drones, Covington attorney Schenendorf said.

 

-- This article was updated at 10:55 a.m. to correct Jack Schenendorf's title.