Drone industry will take off under new Trump administration policy

Drone industry will take off under new Trump administration policy
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The time is now for matchmaking between the commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drone, industry, and states and localities.

Last week, Transportation Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine Lan ChaoMcConnell: I won't be intimidated by protesters Protesters confront McConnell leaving Kentucky restaurant The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by Better Medicare Alliance — Wild night of primaries reshapes 2018 midterms MORE officially launched the administration’s UAS Integration Pilot Program. This initiative brings states, localities, tribes and industry together to open the skies to drones for critical infrastructure inspections, support for emergency management operations, counter-drone technology, unmanned traffic management systems and more. This is a creative approach and an encouraging first step toward more quickly integrating commercial drones into the National Airspace System.

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Industry advocates have welcomed the pilot program as an important step in the right direction, and for good reason. The commercial drone market is on the cusp of taking off. The safety, security and efficiency benefits from using drones for commercial and public safety tasks are innumerable. From industrial inspection and disaster response, to precision agriculture and cell tower inspection, to medical delivery, newsgathering and critical infrastructure security — and everything in between — the impact of drones is seemingly endless.

 

But while the public benefits of commercial drones are substantial, policymaking has handicapped the technology in the United States. Many companies have been forced to test their commercial drone operation overseas. The lack of an enabling regulatory framework is standing in the way of widespread commercial drone adoption here in the United States.       

At a recent industry gathering, Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios described our federal government’s intention to keep pace. The White House “Office of Science and Technology Policy…is committed to implementing smart Federal policies that can not only enhance emerging tech companies’ ability to develop, test, and deploy their technologies here in the U.S., but also enhance Americans’ ability to access and benefit from those innovations.” 

Taking steps to enable drone use cases that are clearly in the public interest, but currently prohibited or limited by regulation, the UAS Integration Pilot Program will establish innovation hubs around the country. Does a state want to enable drone use for pipeline inspection within its borders? Or does a city wish to use drones for emergency response, package delivery or infrastructure inspection? Many of these use cases require drone operations beyond visual line of sight of the operator, or over people, or at night. Under the new program, local and state authorities will collaborate with industry to address and enable needs of this type that are in the public’s interest.

There are at least four key points to watch as this program moves forward.

First, under its terms, the pilot program will enable new activity, but only in line with existing FAA authorities and regulations — meaning that waivers and exemptions will still be required. The existing FAA Part 107 waiver process is currently limping along. 

As of today, the FAA has issued only six waivers that authorize flights over people, and only seven that authorize flights beyond visual line of sight. For the few of these types of waivers that have been granted, most contain strict restrictions that severely limit their usefulness from a commercial operating perspective.

It is critical that the process for obtaining waivers under Part 107, whether through this new program or otherwise, is properly streamlined, transparent and expeditious. The Part 107 waiver itself must also provide meaningful relief for companies operating drones in the real world.

Second, it is critical that the FAA has the necessary resources to enable the program to succeed. At the same time, there are important rules being developed by the FAA that will enable expanded operations in a long-term way. There are also important industry-government partnerships, including Pathfinders and Partnership for Safety Programs, which deliver important value to the agency and the general public. The new program must not take away resources from these other simultaneous valuable efforts.

Third, federal preemption issues related to drone regulation have been hotly debated in Congress and across the executive branch for the last several years. There must be proper coordination and partnership between federal, state and local governments. But the importance of a national standard of safety under the FAA’s oversight must also be reaffirmed.

Finally, the mere fact that this pilot program is expanding the conversations in our communities from how to restrict drone flights to also include how we enable the many benefits of commercial drones for the benefit of the American public is a huge step in the right direction.

The long-term hope is that this pilot program will become a model for overcoming some of the hurdles keeping the full potential of commercial drones from being realized. In implementing this pilot program, the administration has shown creativity in helping to bring the vast benefits of drone technology to Americans. Other countries are already making quick progress with drones, and collaborative approaches like this may keep American companies from looking overseas to develop their drone businesses.

Lisa Ellman is a partner at Hogan Lovells US LLP and co-executive director of the Commercial Drone Alliance.