New FAA reauthorization bill gives government more power over drones

HUNTSVILLE, Ala -- A new bipartisan aviation bill, passed Wednesday in the Senate, will set new long-term regulations and funding for the federal aviation administration.

While much of H.R. 302 addresses passenger flights, disaster aid and TSA checks, there's a little-noticed section that would give authorities more power when it comes to drones.

In the past decade, the commercial and hobbyist drone industry has boomed.

The Consumer Technology Association projects sales of more than $1 billion this year. "The growth in the next couple of years is projected to be exponential," said David Cooper, owner of EQB View, an aerial photography and videography company based in Huntsville.

As the government determines regulations and rules for unmanned aircraft, the new FAA legislation would give law enforcement the power to track, intercept and destroy drones that are considered to be a security threat without a judge's approval.

Supporters say this protects Americans from terrorists learning to use drones as deadly weapons.

"The bill that's out there now is really more geared towards emerging threats, threats that we've seen around the world, threats we've actually seen here in the U.S.," explained Cooper.

Critics say the provision would give the government unchecked power in identifying drones as a threat. That could be any drone, including those used in news coverage.

"For instance, Sky 19's up, completely in the open, commercial operating properly but something gets reported that says; 'hey we've got somebody snooping over in the neighborhood when that equipment's not even looking at that,'" Cooper said.

Perhaps the overall problem is knowledge. "I personally don't think there needs to be more rules. I think there needs to be better education on it," Cooper said.

Cooper encourages Congress and the FAA to take a closer look at privacy concerns as the industry develops. "You can fly right up to an individual's business or house or whatever and you know who knows what bad deeds they're wanting to do with it."

"We'll see how this legislation and any future legislation may come to work on the privacy concerns, but to me that's something the FAA and our government really needs to be pushing towards," Cooper said.

He says a lot of the grey area in drone legislation is from "carry over" from manned aircraft laws. "How does this small piece of equipment fit into the rules for manned aviation?"

"A few years into this I think the FAA's goal and approach has been very cautious. It's been a good first step."

The bill passed by a vote of 93 to 6 and will now go to President Trump's desk to be signed into law.