A Senate bill to reauthorize the FAA contains provisions related to the manufacture of drones that could apply to home-built drones, as well as those produced by large consumer manufacturers. The bill in question, titled the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2016, contains provisions that would have a significant impact on technology innovation by all manufacturers of small drones. With no size or weight threshold, the bill, if adopted, would add new and burdensome manufacturing, testing and approval restrictions to even the tiniest drones.  And, most disturbing, these restrictions could apply to hobby-built remote controlled aircraft or student-built drones, effectively prohibiting them from operating outdoors. The legislation could also retroactively ground already-built models that didn’t meet the manufacturing standards called for by the proposed legislation.

A person pushes the Fleye drone as it flies at the Fleye booth during CES International, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

The bill states: “it shall be unlawful for any person to introduce or deliver for introduction into interstate commerce any unmanned aircraft manufactured on or after the date that the [FAA] adopts a relevant [manufacturing] standard, unless the manufacturer has received approval …for each make and model.”  In order to receive approval, the bill sets forth steps that would be difficult for large manufacturers to meet, let alone small businesses or individuals.  In order to receive manufacturing approval, the drone maker would, among other things, have to meet safety standards developed through a consensus process with government, industry and “community-based aviation organizations”, which would include presumably the Academy of Model Aeronautics. A manufacturer – regardless of size – would at a minimum have to provide “the aircraft’s operating instructions” and confirm that the drone met the specified standards.  In addition, the drone manufacturer would have to provide a sample of every make and model to the FAA for its approval.

I asked a leading drone attorney whether a drone built at home or in school could be considered to be introduced “into interstate commerce.” According to Peter Sachs, who publishes the well-regarded legal website www.dronelawjournal.com, “the flight of any aircraft, whether built in a factory or in a basement, is a flight in interstate commerce.”

At a time when the U.S. lags behind so many industrialized countries in higher education, especially in terms of science and technology, a bill that would have such tremendous impacts on an innovative new field is perplexing.