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White House Announces Pilot Program to Share Airspace Authority with Local Governments

BY Zacc Dukowitz
26 October 2017

President Trump has issued a memorandum to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao calling for the creation of an Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program that will “test and validate advanced operations for drones in partnership with state and local governments in select jurisdictions.”

This announcement has come out quickly—just last week we heard rumors that this pilot program was in the works and now, only a few days later, it’s been made public.

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According to a press release issued yesterday, results from the pilot program will be used to speed up the integration of drones into the national airspace, so that the U.S. can fully “realize the benefits of unmanned technology in our economy.”

Stakeholders will have the opportunity through this program to demonstrate how their innovative technological and operational solutions can address complex unmanned aircraft integration challenges. At the same time, the program recognizes the importance of community participation in meaningful discussions about balancing local and national interests related to integrating unmanned aircraft.

– Michael Huerta, FAA Administrator

In brief, the program proposes to:

  • Help the USDOT and FAA develop a regulatory framework that will allow more complex low-altitude operations
  • Identify ways to balance local and national interests
  • Improve communications with local, state and tribal jurisdictions
  • Address security and privacy risks
  • Accelerate the approval of operations that currently require special authorizations

More specifically, the program will test drone operations in scenarios that are currently prohibited by the FAA’s Part 107 regulations, including night flights, flights over people, flying drones beyond visual line of sight, and package delivery.

Many businesses in the drone industry feel like their growth is stymied by these prohibitions, and have been pushing to have them eased.

Although there are processes in place to secure waivers that allow all of these operations, getting approval is not always certain, and can take 90 days or more.

Aside from night waivers, which represent the vast majority of the waivers the FAA has issued, only a handful of other types of waivers have been granted (for BVLOS, flights over people, or flying from a moving vehicle).

All of this means that businesses who perform inspections or work in scenarios that might require these waivers are left unable to expand operations, or even to investigate the possibility of expansion, due to existing regulations.

The U.S. Department of Transportation will be accepting proposals from interested local government in partnership with private companies. The DOT will invite a minimum of five partnerships to start.

While the hope is that these pilot programs will ease restrictions and ultimately create more room for the drone industry to grow, if we end up with a patchwork of local laws so complicated—and potentially expensive, if each local authority requires its own license or permitting fees—that doing business is impossible, we will in fact have gone backwards when it comes to supporting the growth of the drone industry.

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