The U.S. Senate today gave final congressional approval to a measure that authorizes funding for the Federal Aviation Administration through September 2017 – and also changes procedures for airport security and emergency drone operations.
“It’s a little more than a 14-month extension, but don’t let that fool you, because it is going to put into permanent law bolstering security at our airports in order to help better protect us,” Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said on the Senate floor.
Bolstering airport security was a high priority for Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., one of the bill’s sponsors. She said the measure would help head off soft-target airport attacks like the ones that hit Brussels and Istanbul earlier this year.
“By passing this bill, we’re doubling the number of terrorist deterrent teams at U.S. airports and ground transportation hubs,” Cantwell said.
The legislation increases the number of Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response teams, or VIPR teams, from 30 to 60. The Transportation Security Administration’s VIPR teams are best known to air travelers through the bomb-sniffing dogs that the teams employ.
The legislation also expands the TSA’s PreCheck program, tightens the vetting of airport employees and allows TSA to donate unneeded screening equipment to foreign airports with direct flights to the United States.
On the drone front, the measure streamlines the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as UAVs or drones, for emergencies and disaster response. Drone operators who “knowingly or recklessly” fly too close to emergency responders would face a $20,000 civil fine. The measure also calls on the FAA to draw up a plan to study how UAV traffic should be managed, particularly to head off collisions with commercial airplanes and potential threats to airports as well as other sensitive areas.
Representatives of the drone industry said they were generally pleased with the legislation, but with caveats.
“New requirements for mandatory reporting statements and identification standards could end up limiting the benefits of drone technology, and these provisions will require careful coordination with the FAA to ensure they are implemented without stifling innovation,” Kara Calvert, director of the Drone Manufacturers Alliance, said in a statement.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International said the FAA reauthorization marked a positive step toward full integration of unmanned aerial systems into the national airspace. AUVSI’s members include Washington-based companies ranging from Amazon and Insitu (a Boeing subsidiary) to Esterline and Applewhite Aero.
“This FAA extension will provide short-term stability for the commercial UAS industry,” Brian Wynne, AUVSI’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “Its provisions will help expand commercial operations, advance research and keep the airspace safe for all users – manned and unmanned. AUVSI looks forward to continue working with lawmakers to ensure that UAS integration efforts are done efficiently and safely, and allow for more widespread uses of the technology.”
The FAA extension was considered the only must-pass measure standing in the way of Congress’ summer recess. The House approved the measure by voice vote on Monday, and the Senate voted 89-4 in favor today. The bill will be sent to the White House for President Barack Obama’s signature.