Educational provision in National Defense Authorization Act called “a win for aviation”
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) doesn’t have a ton to say about drones, but there’s one educational provision related to drones that most in the drone industry are thrilled about. The bill authorizes $740.5B in defense funds for fiscal year 2021, allocating funds for military construction projects, ships, nuclear weapons, aircraft and other national security initiatives and establishes pay rates for warfighters.
But the NDAA also has some implications for the drone industry, including topics like counter-drone technology. And one, small drone-related education provision was included in the National Defense Authorization Act that drone industry advocates are calling “a win for aviation in general.”
An educational provision written into the act now permits drone operations as part of an educational program that is chartered by a recognized community-based organization (such as the Academy of Model Aeronautics) or as an established JROTC program, for education or research purposes.
The bill passed the Senate in a 84-13 vote, days after the House voted 335-78 to approve it. But one roadblock: President Donald Trump has threatened to veto the bill. If that happens, Congress is preparing for a clash that could result in the first veto override of his presidency, just a month before he leaves office. Trump has issued eight vetoes in his presidency, none of which have been successfully overridden.
But assuming the bill passes, that’s good news for the drone industry.
What was the law before when it came to drones in education?
Previously, only university-level UAS operations were specifically allowed to operate within CBO programming or as a standalone UAS program — but there was no mention of non-university-level education, whether that be a high school JROTC program or a local Girl Scout troop.
That meant those programs needed to operate under the FAA’s Part 107. While not a huge, onerous restriction to operate under Part 107 (considering teachers likely are certified anyway), it did mean there must be someone with a Remote Pilot Certificate present during drone flights to, serve as the Remote Pilot in Command.
Here’s why that’s a potential problem: not only do Remote Pilot Certificates entail passing a written test, but they also require you to be at least 16-years-old to hold one. In practice, that means a 15-year-old JROTC student flying a drone alone say, as a homework assignment, would technically be breaking the rules unless an adult with a Remote Pilot Certificate were present.
Tyler Dobbs, Government Affairs Director at the Academy of Model Aeronautics, told The Drone Girl that previous rules were ‘unrealistic.’
“Legally, if a student is working on that project for their school, they couldn’t fly without a Part 107-certified adult there with them,” he said. “It’s unrealistic to think that student will only fly drones during one class period.”
Related read: What’s the best educational drone for a STEM program?
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The new legislation is great news for organizations like the AMA, which allows it to continue the educational UAS programming that had been in place for decades. It also means a young Girl Scout working on a drone delivery project, or a cadet in an JROTC program, can work on their own.
Dobbs said the new National Defense Authorization Act education provision makes it easier for educational drone programming to occur, adding that is a huge win for aviation as a whole.
“Our future pilots and aeronautical engineers can get their start now,” Dobbs said. “Now students can work under the educational provision. A teacher can go ahead and launch a UAS program in a school. If we want the industry to grow, then we need those people who have an interest in UAS studying when they’re young.”
It also means that educational programs can much easier comply with the law, which he said might have unknowingly been broken. He said he suspects students do fly drones on their own (sans Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate) right now anyway.
“What’s the point of rules that can’t be enforced? We see that with everything out right now,” he said. “That lack of enforcement has caused people who are trying to follow the rules start to question that. ‘Why am I the one registering? Why am I the one getting airspace authorization?'”
Dobbs said he hopes this will make it easier for people to comply with the law.
“It’s the FAA making it so people can actually comply with the regulations they are writing,” he said. “They’re doing a better job recently than they have in the past, giving everyone a level playing field. It’s not putting such restrictions out there.”
Why is the educational provision only just now being passed into law?
The good news is that, according to Dobbs, adding the educational provision wasn’t controversial at all.
Instead, he said the reason it hasn’t been included in past legislation is a simple one: oversight.
“The 2018 FAA Reauthorization had a provision in it (that’s Sec. 350. titled ‘Use of unmanned aircraft systems at institutions of higher education focused on educational usage’),” Dobbs said. “But the only educational component mentioned was university-level protections.”
Dobbs suggested that because Congress addressed educational usage but only specifically permitted it at the university level, it could be interpreted that drone education being considered a ‘recreational purpose’ for all institutions outside of the university-level were specifically excluded.
That said, Dobbs said he believes Congress wasn’t trying to exclude non-University level drone education.
“It’s just that, during the 2018 FAA Reauthorization, there were so many cooks in the kitchen — so many groups wanting to make sure their portion and provision was added,” he said. “It was a simple oversight.”
In other news, there was another more controversial provision on the line. A provision prohibiting federal agencies from using foreign-made UAS and UAS equipment was removed from the act. That’s been a hot-button topic among people promoting drones made in America, specifically in response to backlash against drones made in China.
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