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Amazon's Prime Air "Delivery Drone."
Amazon’s Prime Air “Delivery Drone.”

Two U.S. senators think their country is falling behind when it comes to creating rules for commercial drones, and now they’re doing something about it.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota) today introduced the Commercial UAS Modernization Act, which would set temporary rules for those who want to fly commercial unmanned aircraft systems before the Federal Aviation Administration establishes permanent laws regarding drone use.

Sen. Cory Booker.
Sen. Cory Booker.

“There is so much potential that can be unlocked if we lay the proper framework to support innovation in unmanned aircraft systems,” Booker said in a statement. “But right now, the US is falling behind other countries because we lack rules for the safe operation of commercial UAS technology. The Commercial UAS Modernization Act sets up clear and immediate rules of the road, helping to lay a foundation that will allow us to make cutting-edge progress in a rapidly emerging field.”

The proposal outlines basic rules for commercial use around registration, certification, insurance, tests, and safety. Operators would be required to keep the drones under 500 feet, fly only in daylight, and keep the devices within line-of-sight.

That last part — keeping drones within line-of-sight — may seem like a blow to Amazon, which wants to use the devices to deliver packages to customers’ doorsteps.

drones-faa1However, the proposal also creates a deputy administrator position that would be able to make an exemption for a commercial drone operator for “beyond line of sight operations” and “heavier unmanned vehicles.”

“Not later than 90 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Deputy Associate Administrator, in consultation with the Administrator, shall expedite and expand exemptions from the interim operating restrictions otherwise applicable to unmanned aircraft under section 337,” the Act reads. 

Amazon previously expressed its frustration with the FAA at a congressional hearing in Washington D.C. in March, when Amazon VP of Global Policy Paul Misener said that the FAA was not doing enough to allow innovation to blossom with unmanned aircraft systems.

Amazon VP of Global Policy Paul Misener.
Amazon VP of Global Policy Paul Misener.

“Where we lag behind is planning for future,” Misener said at the time. “It’s that high degree of automation, the beyond line-of-sight flying. It’s coming. The Europeans are getting ready for it; we are not so much.”

At that March hearing, Booker also shared similar concern.

“I am a little bit upset, because it seems like when it comes to government moving at the speed of innovation — whether it’s in biologics, in the backlog at the patent offices, or this area — we are slowing this country, while innovation is going on at an extraordinary pace overseas,” Booker said in March. ” We are being left behind.”

Sen. John Hoeven.
Sen. John Hoeven.

The FAA, meanwhile, is issuing exemptions for commercial drone operations on a case-by-case basis, although it is taking action to speed up that process. The administration also proposed draft regulations in February — which include a requirement for line-of-sight — but it could take several months, even years, before anything is finalized.

However, it does seem like the FAA shifting its attitude toward drone regulation, particularly as companies like Amazon and Google develop drone technologies. Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that the regulatory body will start studying the possibility of drone flights that can be operated beyond the pilot’s line of sight.

“We’re on the frontier of a whole new era of aviation, when remotely piloted aircraft will improve crop production, provide valuable aid for first responders and even deliver packages to our doorstep,” Sen. Hoeven said in a statement. “We need to design safe pathways for the UAS industry to deliver these benefits to consumers, and our bill, through the FAA test sites, does just that.”

The full text of the proposal is below:

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