Reaping the benefits of safe drone technology
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When a Maine fire chief used his hobby drone to drop a life vest to two boys trapped by raging waters he not only saved two young lives, he demonstrated the positive potential of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

UAS technology, or Drones, has evolved much the same as computers, which went from room-sized machines operated by NASA to laptops and then smart phones carried around in our pockets. Not long ago, only the military flew drones—in combat zones. Today, Americans are flying many types of hobby drones and companies are increasingly using them, as well. Just as democratization of technology led to new programs, uses, and “apps” for computers, it is leading to creative new uses and innovation for drones.

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This became abundantly clear in the aftermath of the hurricanes that devastated Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) worked overtime to process more than 300 authorizations for drone use in the search, rescue, and recovery efforts in the aftermath of the storms. “Drone crews” were deployed by communications and utility companies to rapidly and safely assess damage to cell phone towers, power transmission lines, pipelines, roads, and railways. Insurance adjusters discovered that drones allow for more efficient and safe property inspections, especially in flooded areas. Drones let them check roofs without climbing ladders, and make surveys faster and less expensive. 

Drones using thermal imagers are invaluable for search and rescue.  They can detect humans in total darkness, and can see through fog, smoke, and haze. Teams fighting wildfires can also use this technology to locate hidden hotspots that might burst into flame later. This flexibility helps explain why more than 300 first responder teams throughout the United States have purchased drones. In fact, a community college in Illinois has started offering a course for first responders interested in starting drone programs.

Other applications being studied include using drones for package delivery, carrying critical medical supplies to remote or inaccessible areas, assisting agriculture, or even aero taxis capable of carrying passengers.  The possibilities are endless. Unfortunately, because our current regulatory environment is perceived as overly restrictive, much drone innovation is happening overseas — in Japan, Australia, and Great Britain. This could shortchange America’s economy and workers. Utilizing drones in our nation’s airspace could add $80 billion to our economy and create 100,000 jobs in the next decade, according to a recent report by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

All this is about to change. To facilitate innovation in drone applications and their safe integration into our nation's airspace, this administration has launched an initiative to allow state, local, or tribal leaders to partner with drone operators to test and deploy drone operations that currently require special authorizations. The goal is to safely expand cutting-edge drone unmanned aircraft operations and test "beyond visual line of sight" flights, night operations, flights over people, and many other applications.  This three-year pilot program will be conducted by the Department of Transportation, with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversight. Among the benefits will be the data, experience, and best practices gained from the program. This will help the Department and the FAA develop rules that will allow our society to benefit more fully from the evolution in drone technology while continuing to address concerns over safety, security, and privacy.

Earlier this year, I attended an event in North Dakota that focused on drone technology, in which local authorities provided a welcoming environment for drone operations. The administration’s new Drone Integration Pilot Program seeks to encourage this spirit of partnership and innovation.

American ingenuity and innovation are two of our country’s greatest strengths. This pilot program will help ensure that Americans reap the benefits of safe drone technology, and that our country retains its place as an aviation pioneer and technology leader.

Elaine L. Chao is secretary of Transportation.