President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao today launched the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program, an initiative to test drone operations including night flights, flights over people and flying drones beyond visual line of sight.
While light on details, the announcement of the program could be a gamechanger for how and when drones are integrated into the U.S. airspace on a large scale.
The FAA currently bans a variety of advanced drone operations, including those mentioned above, without a waiver of exemption, which has frustrated companies who feel their business is being stifled by the rules.
“If you are wanting to do drone operations beyond the normal part 107, this appears that the FAA will be moving the direction to allow more of the complex and difficult types of operations many of us have been wanting,” drone attorney Jonathan Rupprecht wrote in a blog post.
The new Drone Integration Pilot Program is calling for prospective local government participant to partner with the private sector to develop pilot proposals.
From those proposals, the U.S. Department of Transportation will select at least five groups to join its pilot program.
The program largely mirrors a request in a controversial letter signed by major drone industry stakeholders including Amazon, Fedex, UPS, GoPro, DJI, AUVSI and AOPA for the FAA to hand over more control to private industry and local communities.
The letter wrote:
“The federal government can’t do it all – we need partners who can stand up and serve as models for this industry, demonstrating to the rest of the world how to deploy this technology correctly, smartly and safely.”
We completely agree and have long said that government-industry collaboration is key to unlocking the tremendous societal and economic benefits of UAS.”
Trump has previously been quite vocal in his criticism of the FAA, calling the group “out of whack” during a February 2017 conversation about the FAA’s air traffic control system.
“It’s way over budget. It’s way behind schedule,” he said. “And when it’s complete, it’s not going to be a good system. Other than that, it’s fantastic.”
But Trump has shown some interest in drone regulation. The president hosted a meeting with major drone stakeholders in June 2017 to discuss government involvement in the drone industry.
It’s still unclear what the outcome of Trump’s new pilot program will look like.
Some predict it could be operated like the FAA’s UAS Test Site Program. In that program, six different areas around the country where tasked with researching various drone issues, such as obstacle avoidance or flying within visual line of sight. They were then obligated to submit their research back to the FAA.
“Anything that is collaborative is obviously going to drive the market a little quicker,” said Mike Blades, Frost & Sullivan’s North American Research Director and an analyst for aerospace and defense.
But if instead the program hands over more power to state and local governments to develop regulations, Blades said that could further complicate an already complicated set of federal drone laws.
“If it gets to the point of different states having different rules with a patchwork quilt of regulatory structures between states, that will be an industry restraint vs. an industry driver.”