Drone Operator Safety Act of 2017 (H.R.3644/S.1755)


Drone-Operator-Safety-Act-of-2017

Quick Summary of the Drone Operator Safety Act of 2017:

The Drone Operator Safety Act of 2017 is a proposed bill that makes it a federal misdemeanor to: (1)  fly unmanned aircraft in the runway exclusion zone of an airport (red zone in the picture to the left) without air traffic control authorization or (2) “operate an unmanned aircraft and, in so doing, knowingly or recklessly interfering with, or disrupting the operation of, an aircraft or other airborne vehicle carrying 1 or more occupants operating in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States, in a manner that poses an imminent safety hazard to such occupants[.]”

This applies to all unmanned aircraft.

A federal misdemeanor can be punished up to 1 year in federal prison and/or a $100,000 fine. If the person attempts or causes serious bodily injury or death with a drone, the crime is punishable up to life in prison.

This article is part of my Drone Legislation Database.

Background of the Drone Operator Safety Act:

The Drone Operator Safety Act of 2017 was introduced on August 4, 2017 by  Congressman Langevin (HR 3644) and on August 3, 2017 by Senator Whitehouse  (SB 1755). If this act’s name sounds familiar, it is because Congressman Langevin introduced a bill with the same name in 2016 that is very similar; however, this is NOT to be confused with:

This bill is somewhat similar to the 2016 Drone Operator Safety Act. The main difference is in regards to how the exclusion zone is defined. The 2016 version applied “class B, class C, or class D airspace” while the 2017 version says “an airport” which means it can apply to ALL airports.

Summary of the Drone Operator Safety Act:

The Drone Operator Safety Act is the culmination of the overall growing sentiment in Congress that drones should not operate near airports. There is research being put into drone countermeasures, drone detection, and drone jamming but there needs to be “teeth” as to how to counter the actual flyer of the drone, not just the aircraft.

It creates this runway exclusion zone that extends 1 mile off the end of the runway. The only way you can fly in the runway exclusion zone is if you have authorization.Flying in this runway exclusion zone is a federal misdemeanor punishable up to a year in federal prison and/or a $100,000 fine; however, if the misdemeanor results in death, they could be fined $250,000. See 18 U.S.C.  § 3559 and 18 U.S.C. § 3571.

In addition to the runway exclusion zone, it creates a crime that can happen ANYWHERE. The penalty for flying “knowingly or recklessly interfering with, or disrupting the operation of, an aircraft or other airborne vehicle carrying 1 or more occupants operating in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States, in a manner that poses an imminent safety hazard to such occupants.” A violation of this is punishable up to a year in federal prison and/or a $100,000 fine unless death happens which then makes the fine up to $250,000.

It also forbids attempted or caused great bodily harm or death and allows for punishment up to life in prison. This kind of makes sense. A prosecutor needs to have a wide range of punishments to work with when prosecuting. The federal crime of attempted murder with a gun is a maximum of 20 years; however, if you are trying to take out an airliner, that is like 130+ attempts of murder.

Pros:

  • It will deter people from flying drones next to airports or aircraft. This is good because I’m tired of the drone “near misses” that are reported on the news which are later used for justification for some state or local laws.
  • It will force commercial drone operators to use the FAA authorization process to obtain a FAA authorization which basically will act like the get out of jail free card.

Cons:

  • I’ve seen this before where over-zealous law enforcement will arrest a person claiming the drone was being operated in the sky near an aircraft (whatever “near” means) which in the officer’s opinion would have killed everyone if there was a collision. This is exactly what happened in the Turgeon case in North Dakota. A law enforcement officer arrested him and he was charged with 2 counts of reckless endangerment and 1 felony level reckless endangerment (because the officer thought he could have taken out the airplane flying overhead). Turgeon later was found not guilty. The Turgeon case was NOT an outlier.  Wilkins Mendoza and Remy Castro were both charged under New York’s felony careless and reckless laws, but prosecutors dropped their case. See also my article on the 23 enforcement actions the FAA did where 19 of them were prosecuted under state law also. These laws are easy to arrest under but hard to prosecute.
  • It applies to “airports” which means you can get in trouble flying in the runway exclusion zone of a middle-of-nowhere “po-dunk” class G airport that rarely sees any traffic. “Airports needs to be defined better to be narrow.
  • It is written so broadly that I can see helicopter pilots, crop dusters, etc. all getting more aggressive with drone operators. I think it would be wise to create some type of language that this interference charge cannot happen below a certain altitude (200 or 400ft AGL) or within a certain distance of a structure. Hobbyists do not have any altitude restrictions like the 107 operators do (400ft AGL).This way loitering airplanes and helicopters cannot be used to suppress drones being used underneath them. Think about it, if you want to hide something, you just fly manned aircraft up in the sky and arrest whoever flys their drone. Any journalists see a problem here?
  • I don’t believe all the airport phone lines are recorded (that is what a FAA FOIA processor told me) so there are potential situations where hobbyists could get permission but have no proof of authorization to fly in the exclusion zone.
  • There are no air traffic control towers for many of the airports out there so this creates a problem. Furthermore, the FAA is not giving out authorizations under Part 107 to class G airports.

Questions Raised/Suggestions:

  • Except for the exclusion zone, create a 0- 200ft AGL “safe zone” where drone operators cannot be prosecuted. This can be used to prevent people from using this law to suppress drone journalism.
  • What type of “airports” are covered? There are thousands of airports all over the U.S. but a large chunk of them are private or quiet small class G airports. Only so many airports really matter. The FAA got away from trying to deal with “airports” and instead worded Part 107 to require authorization to operate in class B, C, D, or E at the surface airspace. I think this act should go back to the class, B, C, or D distinction.
  • Another reason to go back to B, C, or D classification is you can’t get authorization from the FAA to operate near class G airports. Class G and class E at the surface airports 99% of the time don’t have air traffic control towers to get authorizations from. Moreover, a lot of the class G and class E at the surface airports don’t receive much traffic.
  • The text says, “received prior authorization for the operation from the air traffic control tower at the airport” but how does this work with FAA’s new LAANC system?
  • Make it a crime to knowingly create false drone sightings or over-exaggerate the closeness of the drone.
  • Maybe the FAA should create a tip line where informants get paid if there is a prosecution.

 

SECTION 1. SHORT TITLE.

This Act may be cited as the ‘‘Drone Operator Safety Act of 2017’’.

 

SECTION. 2. UNSAFE OPERATION OF UNMANNED AIRCRAFT.

(a) IN GENERAL.—Chapter 2 of title 18, United States Code, is amended—

(1) in section 31—

(A) in subsection (a)—

(i) by redesignating paragraph (10) as paragraph (11); and

(ii) by inserting after paragraph (9) the following:

‘‘(10) UNMANNED AIRCRAFT.—The term ‘unmanned aircraft’ has the meaning given that term in section 331 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (Public Law 112–95; 49 U.S.C. 40101 note).’’; and

(B) in subsection (b), by inserting ‘‘ ‘airport’,’’ before ‘‘ ‘appliance’,’’; and

(2) by inserting after section 39A the following:

‘‘§ 39B. Unsafe operation of unmanned aircraft

‘‘(a) OFFENSE.—It shall be unlawful to operate an unmanned aircraft and, in so doing, knowingly or recklessly interfering with, or disrupting the operation of, an aircraft or other airborne vehicle carrying 1 or more occupants operating in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States, in a manner that poses an imminent safety hazard to such occupants.

‘‘(b) PENALTY.—

‘(1) IN GENERAL.—Except as provided in paragraph (2), a person who violates subsection (a) shall be fined under this title, imprisoned for not more than 1 year, or both.

‘‘(2) SERIOUS BODILY INJURY OR DEATH.—Any person who attempts to cause, or knowingly or recklessly causes, serious bodily injury or death while violating subsection (a) shall be fined under this title, imprisoned for any term of years or for life, or both.

‘‘(c) OPERATION OF UNMANNED AIRCRAFT IN CLOSE PROXIMITY TO AIRPORTS.—

‘‘(1) IN GENERAL.—The operation of an unmanned aircraft, including an operation covered by section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (Public Law 112–95; 49 U.S.C. 40101 note), within a runway exclusion zone shall be considered a violation of subsection (a) unless—

 ‘‘(A) the operation of the unmanned aircraft received prior authorization for the operation from the air traffic control tower at the airport; or

‘‘(B) the operation is the result of a circumstance, such as a malfunction, that could not have been reasonably foreseen or prevented by the operator.

‘‘(2) RUNWAY EXCLUSION ZONE DEFINED.—In this subsection, the term ‘runway exclusion zone’  means a rectangular area—

‘‘(A) centered on the centerline of a runway of an airport; and

‘‘(B) the length of which extends parallel to the runway’s centerline to points that are 1 statute mile from each end of the runway and the width of which is 1⁄2 statute mile.’’.

(b) CLERICAL AMENDMENT.—The table of sections for chapter 2 of title 18, United States Code, is amended by inserting after the item relating to section 39A the following:

‘‘39B. Unsafe operation of unmanned aircraft.’’

Jonathan Rupprecht

Mr. Rupprecht is an aviation attorney who focuses on drones. Read more about his background as a commercial pilot, flight instructor, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University grad, and legal author. He has had media appearances on Forbes, Newsweek, Politico, NPR, Marketwatch, The Independent, Motherboard, and other sources. Feel free to send Jonathan a message here.