Drones Get Flight Clearance

October 26, 2017

Wednesday, the White House announced a three-year pilot program to create "innovation zones" for test drones around the country. President Trump signed an executive order designed to make it simpler and faster to gain government approval to operate UAVs commercially, which the Administration hopes will spur the development of the drone industry in the United States.

The order will allow local governments to apply to the FAA for waivers that will allow them to conduct test drone applications and as well as evaluate support technologies such as air-traffic systems.

The drone industry has been weighed down because the UAV technology has developed much faster than the FAA has been able to formulate safety and security regulations that apply to the specifics of low flying unmanned aircraft. Enforcing regulations written for sport pilots or other private aircraft has been a reasonable take-off point but those rules need to be amended to apply to the unique characteristics of drone flight like low altitude operations.

During testing, operational concepts will be evaluated including flights beyond the pilot’s line of sight and operations at night.

Some of the challenges to integrating UAVs into the national airspace has been the regulatory uncertainty between local, regional and national jurisdictions. This new program should be a good start towards forming a baseline regulatory structure.  With that in place, local government officials will have input into drone operations in their communities without infringing on the federal jurisdiction over the national airspace according to  Brian Wynne, president and chief executive officer of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

The idea of drop-delivery discussed by Amazon and other companies should become less cumbersome to bring to market with the creation of sanctioned innovation zones.

“Amazon supports the administration’s efforts to create a pilot program aimed at keeping America at the forefront of aviation and drone innovation," said  Gur Kimchi, vice president of Amazon Prime Air.

 “This program supports the president’s commitment to foster technological innovation that will be a catalyst for ideas that have the potential to change our day-to-day lives,” Secretary Chao said during the announcement. “Drones are proving to be especially valuable in emergency situations, including assessing damage from natural disasters such as the recent hurricanes and the wildfires in California.”

 “Stakeholders will have the opportunity through this program to demonstrate how their innovative technological and operational solutions can address complex unmanned aircraft integration challenges,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “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.”

“The pilot program will offer a data-driven approach to allow for expanded UAS operations, including beyond line of sight, and UAS traffic management concepts. It will also provide a mechanism for state, local and tribal officials to contribute their views to the UAS policy framework, without infringing on the U.S. government’s jurisdiction over the national airspace. Maintaining federal authority of the airspace will help foster innovation and allow states, municipalities and tribes to tap into the full potential of UAS, while continuing to keep our skies safe,” said Wynne.

More details about the program will be published a Federal Register Notice in the near future.