New Program Will Help Spark an Era of Drone Innovation

Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation kicked off a new and exciting era in aviation, opening the skies to advanced drone operations in regions across the nation. An entirely new way of thinking about how to safely integrate drones in American communities is underway as the federal government recognizes that state and local governments are key contributors to realizing the full economic and social benefits of drones.

The DOT’s new initiative, known as the Integration Pilot Program (IPP), is critically important to America’s economic future, and was highly competitive with over 150 communities applying to participate. The program will allow advanced operations for drones, including flight over people, at night, and beyond line of sight — all presently prohibited by FAA regulations. Focusing on these key use cases will ensure innovation happens here in the U.S. rather than overseas.

Anticipating the societal concerns these new operations would raise, Secretary Chao in announcing the selected regions stated: “Instead of a dictate from Washington, this program takes another approach. It allows interested communities to test drones in ways that they are comfortable with.” Working collaboratively with state, local, and tribal governments is a departure from how aviation has historically operated in the U.S. For decades, the FAA exercised an exclusive form of centralized bureaucratic control, with most flights directly managed by the federal government. What’s more, the FAA relied on technology procured through an expensive and slow process that couldn’t keep pace with advancements in industry, subject to rules focused almost entirely on federal interests. That approach was adequate for the 5,000 commercial flights underway on a daily basis. It also worked because manned aircraft have generally operated well away from people and property, not triggering issues of local concern as society rarely sees manned aircraft flights below 500 ft.

Drones, though, deliver value in close proximity to the people and property that they serve in search-and-rescue, inspection, and law-enforcement use cases, to name a few. Registered drones already number over 1 million — and that number is growing rapidly. In contrast to manned aircraft, today’s drones are required by regulation to operate within 400 feet of the ground or within 400 feet of a structure. In this low-altitude environment, the airspace has more in common with the ground than our wide-open skies where manned aircraft traditionally operate.

Because of their unique characteristics and operating patterns, drones are also the subject of more social concern than manned aircraft. Can a package delivery drone deliver in a residential neighborhood after 10:30pm? What about flights over an outdoor farmers market or a hotel pool? What about repeated flights that regularly traverse in front of the windows of a penthouse apartment that had previously never experienced noise or view obstructions? When a small brush fire happens, how will that information be communicated to an autonomous drone without local officials armed with technology providing input?

Read more of this Real Clear Policy op-ed by Gregory S. McNeal by clicking here.