Words have consequences.
Recently, I reported on remarks from a panel of experts on sUAS integration at the AUVSI expo in Atlanta. One of the more interesting comments came from the FAA’s director of sUAS integration, James Williams, who said that navigable airspace is wherever an aircraft can safely operate. And because Congress chose to define sUAS as “aircraft” in the FMRA, anywhere a small drone could fly safely is, therefore, navigable airspace.
The FAA uses this tautology to justify its claim of jurisdiction over all airspace, from the ground up, regardless of whether a discrete area is surrounded by trees or buildings that would make navigation impossible for a manned aircraft. But the weakness in this argument becomes apparent when taken to its logical conclusion, that the FAA may also claim jurisdiction over indoor airspace.
I have heard from a number of commercial operators who have been hired to conduct inspections inside of large warehouses, for example. We also know, based on public comments, that Amazon has been testing its PrimeAir drones in the U.S. in enclosed spaces. Obviously, these are spaces where drones can safely operate.
So, why hasn’t the FAA claimed jurisdiction over indoor airspace?
The obvious answer is that indoor operations do not threaten the national airspace system (“NAS”) (we discussed the scope of the NAS here and here). But that just begs the soundness of the FAA’s reasoning. The criteria should not be whether a drone can safely operate in a given area, but whether operating in a given area poses any kind of danger to the NAS.
We understand that the FAA has a difficult job to do. But that’s no excuse for engaging in administrative overreach.