The drone community has suffered through years of slow progress when it comes to integrating their equipment into the national airspace. And while a new pilot program unveiled by the White House has left the industry pleasantly surprised, they're also exercising cautious optimism.
The Trump administration rolled out the Unmanned Aerial System Integration Pilot Program late last month, which is designed to “accelerate drone integration into the national airspace.” Under the initiative, local, state, and tribal governments will partner with the private sector to create “innovation zones.”
In these zones, which can be as large as a state, drones will be permitted to operate in ways currently restricted by the Federal Aviation Administration, such as flying at night, over people, or out of the operator’s line of sight.
The pilot program is set to last three years, and through it, the federal government aims to learn more about how local, state, and tribal governments can be involved in the regulatory process.
“It’s a nice balance to strike, and even those who are looking at ensuring states and localities don’t lose the authority, there will be part of this movement that will be constructive,” said Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition.
The question of how governments can exercise their authority over drone use in their own communities has been of concern for lawmakers on Capitol Hill, especially as drones have grown in popularity and companies such as Amazon and Alphabet have started experimenting with new uses for the technology.
To address these concerns, Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Minn., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced legislation in their respective chambers that look to non-federal governments to regulate drone use below 200 feet.
President Trump’s drone pilot program is designed to bring those lower governments into the fold. Lewis said the initiative is a good first step, but he noted the FAA has additional things to do.
“While this pilot program recognizes some of the principles I’ve advocated for, unfortunately, it doesn’t go far enough in protecting local control and the rights of privacy property,” Lewis said in a statement.
The federal government, for example, should recognize that other governments have “traditional rights like police powers and land use rights,” said Stephen Bradford, Lewis’ spokesman.
“Rep. Lewis believes that this means that the pilot program should not only increase operations for drones, but reaffirm that states can use their traditional rights to reasonably limit the time, manner, and place of drone operations in their communities,” he said.
Jason Snead, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation who has written extensively on drones, agreed that the pilot program is a good first step for the administration to take, particularly given the FAA’s track record of slow action on integrating the new technology into the national airspace.
“We’ve sort of been living in a world where the FAA has made itself the sole regulator in this space for the last eight years or so,” he said. “As a consequence of that, we’ve seen companies are taking their research and development overseas because the rules here are restrictive.”
But Snead said he believes the FAA needs to further clarify what the regulatory framework is going to be.
“What I hope that they do, in addition to experimenting with the technologies and services, I hope they test ways for cities and states to manage drone traffic within their jurisdictions,” he said. “That’s what you have to do to get to have a productive regulatory framework.”
But for Jonathan Rupprecht, a Florida-based aviation lawyer focused on drones, the biggest “pro” of the pilot program is the conversation it forces between the different levels of government on drone operations.
“It’s forcing a situation to start being discussed of how the states and counties and tribal governments are going to somehow interact with the federal area of the law,” he said. “It’s this brackish area; nobody really knows how. You have the salt water and the fresh water mixing, and we don’t know where that line is.”
Rupprecht also said the design of the pilot program is flawed, especially given its lack of funding.
“Where is the cash for this? There is no cash,” he said. “This is going to have to be completely self-funded. … The private sector will see a whole lot of work. You might end up spinning your wheels for free.”
Drobac, of the Small UAV Coalition, disagrees.
“This is an investment companies have been seeking to make for awhile,” he said. “I see very few commercial entities that have been looking for government funding. They just want to explore whether their technology is as good as they think it is and to partner with people. That doesn’t require public funding. The private funding is going to be more powerful because it’s putting your money where your mouth is.”
Drobac said he was pleasantly surprised to see the government give the drone industry the green light to “dazzle them” with innovation, but he’s proceeding with caution.
“I’m extremely excited about this, but don’t take my excitement for being a conclusion this is going to work,” he said. “When you’ve been dying of thirst in the desert and you see a glass of water, you’re not going to criticize it. You’re going to drink it. That’s what I see this as being.”
For example, the pilot program calls for at least five partnerships, and he hopes the FAA follows through with exceeding that number, as he expects the pilot program will garner substantial interest within the drone industry.
Drobac, though, said the “whole culture” of the program suggested the number of partnerships would surpass five.
He also questioned whether the federal government would be as aggressive as it now appears to be once applications for potential partnerships start rolling in.
“The big comment from the Department of Transportation was we want to be surprised. We want you to dazzle us with your creativity and innovation. That sent a clear message: Give us many proposals,” he said. “My only question to them is once they’re dazzled, and they will be, if they can’t embrace them and move quickly and get to a higher number than five, the program will go down as another failure.”
Though the administration has signaled it’s ready and willing to accelerate drone integration, there is still a lot Congress can do alongside the FAA.
Codifying an agreement to allow local, state, and federal governments to set time, place, and manner restrictions for drone operations is one step, Snead said, though there’s disagreement as to whether that’s the best path forward.
“I’d like to see Congress step in to carve out the legal framework rather than rely on the FAA to shoehorn drones into the atmosphere,” he said.
Drobac said lawmakers should address areas were drones are prohibited from operating, and on a macro level, he believes Congress needs to “set an aggressive agenda for allowing this technology to be used, provided it can be used effectively.”
Still, Drobac is pleased the White House has expressed a willingness to further innovation with drone technology, and he said the Trump administration should be prepared to be impressed.
“Technology always wins,” he said, “and we’re in a position where this is a program that began within the White House and was aggressively picked up by the Department of Transportation, and it’s a total vindication of the concept that technology always wins.”