Illinois reps seek to exempt small drones from federal regs

Greg Nash

A bipartisan pair of Illinois lawmakers is seeking to exempt small drones from forthcoming federal rules for expanded use of the devices. 

Reps. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) and Cheri BustosCheri BustosHow Rep. Eric Swalwell became the Snapchat king of Congress EMILY's List names incumbent Dems it will fundraise for Biden to headline House Dems' retreat: report MORE (D-Ill.) have filed an amendment to a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funding measure that would exempt drones that are smaller than 4.4 pounds from the upcoming regulations that are being developed for the unmanned aerial devices. 

The lawmakers said the exemption would benefit small drone manufacturers who primarily market their devices to recreational users. 

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“U.S. policy regarding drones has not kept up with technology and lags behind that of other countries,” Davis said in a statement. 

“This commonsense amendment will remove bureaucratic red tape and allow for the responsible use of small drones," he continued. "This new classification will spur innovation and help small manufacturers like Horizon Hobby, which specializes in manufacturing drones for agriculture use, expand and create jobs.”

Congress originally required the FAA to develop a plan for boosting the use of drones in the U.S. by 2015, but the agency missed the deadline for the legalization of the devices.

The FAA has released a proposed set of regulations for allowing a rapid expansion of the use of commercial drones in the U.S., but the agency has not yet signed off on widespread use of the devices. 

The agency has faced tremendous pressure to approve such an expansion of nonmilitary drone use from companies such as Amazon, which has said the technology can be used to make speedier deliveries. 

Recreational drone users who do not consider themselves pilots have chaffed at the FAA's classification of drones as aircrafts, however. 

They argue that Congress carved out an exemption for recreational drones in the last FAA funding bill that was passed in 2012, which included the mandate that the agency legalize commercial use of the devices. 

"The Special Rule for Model Aircraft in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 clearly states that the FAA is prohibited from promulgating any new rules for recreational users operating within the safety guidelines of a community-based organization (CBO)," the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) said in a recent statement. 

"Congress by no means intended to grant a free pass to flyers within this system," the model aeronautics group continued. "Instead, it left risk mitigation and the development of appropriate safety guidelines to organizations like AMA." 

The FAA’s initial rules define small drones as devices that weigh less than 55 pounds and require them to be operated at heights below 500 feet and speeds below 100 miles per hour.

The regulations also call for drone flights to be limited to daytime hours and conducted only by U.S. residents who are older than 17 years of age. 

Davis's office said Thursday that his amendment would create "a new classification that would exempt micro UAS weighing up to 4.4 pounds from regulation under the FAA but would still require the UAS to be operated within line of sight, less than 400 feet above the ground, and more than five miles from any airport." 

Lawmakers in the House are holding a hearing on the proposed FAA funding measure on Thursday. The agency's funding is currently set to expire on March 31.

The FAA bill is one of the few must-pass pieces of legislation left on the congressional agenda this year. As such, it also represents an opportunity for lawmakers looking for a vehicle on which to attach pet issues.

Most of the debate about the aviation funding bill thus far has been focused on a controversial plan from House Republicans to separate air traffic control from the FAA.