President Trump will put a new program in place that could accelerate and increase the number of drone tests across the United States, according to a new memorandum released by the White House. The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot program, as it’s called, will allow US cities and states to partner with tech companies to draw up at least five trial programs around the country over the next three years. Each program will have to be reviewed by the Federal Aviation Administration.
These trial programs could be used to test everything from delivering goods to night flights to flying drones beyond a pilot’s line of sight to sense-and-avoidance technologies and more, according to the Department of Transportation. In return, the government will have access to the data created by these trials, which it will use in conjunction with NASA to further develop an air traffic control system for drones.
Until now, the US government has taken a careful approach to drone operation. Companies and individuals are currently able to fly drones for commercial purposes in the US, but are subject to heavy restrictions. Pilots are required to obtain a certification, are only allowed to fly during the daytime, and must keep the drone within line of sight. They’re also supposed to keep the drones at or under 400 feet, and aren’t allowed to fly over crowds.
The FAA issues waivers for these restrictions on a case-by-case basis, but the process of obtaining one can be slow, to the point that tech companies have looked outside the US for places to create their own trial programs to test things like drone delivery. Amazon partnered with the British government back in 2016 to test delivering packages with its Prime Air drones, for example, and others have taken to the skies in places like Iceland and Switzerland.
One other thing that has held drone operations back in the US is concern from law enforcement about how to track and identify drones so they can go after operators breaking the law. This morning, DJI showed off its take on a “license plate” for drones: a small, portable box that can pinpoint any DJI within a five-kilometer radius, showing authorities where it took off, where it’s headed, who it belongs to, and even where the pilot is standing. If the pilot programs with local municipalities are a success, technology like this will be crucial to rolling those new rules out on a national scale. In the meantime, it will be up to the DOT to police these drone trials.
The objectives of the UAS Integration Pilot program, according to Trump’s memorandum, are threefold. The program is meant to test different ways of involving local governments in the process of hammering out and enforcing federal drone regulations. It’s also supposed to encourage owners and operators to develop and test “innovative” use cases for drones. Lastly, the program will be used as a testbed for how the government can and will build out any guidelines for a national network of commercial drones.
The memorandum also spells out, in rough detail, what the DOT and the FAA are looking for in these applications. The agencies want proposals from different parts of the country to ensure varied geographies and climates, and it wants to see locations with different economies represented. It is also asking for variety in the purpose of the proposals, especially trial programs that focus on using drones to enhance workplace safety, or ones that contribute to emergency search and response operations.
Early reactions from the tech industry have been cautiously, but not overwhelmingly, optimistic. “A pilot program in coordination with localities will allow us to test technology solutions that address concerns, generate data to inform policy and create partnerships that promote the use of drone technology to benefit communities,” Lisa Malloy, the senior director for Intel’s public policy group, said in a statement. She compared the program to the public-private partnership framework that powers NASA.
In its own statement, the Commercial Drone Alliance says it is “optimistic that the Program will become a model for overcoming some of the hurdles keeping the full potential of commercial drones from being realized,” but that its success “will depend on its implementation.” Doug Johnson, the Consumer Technology Association’s vice president of technology policy, said in a release that the initiative was a “smart way to engage local governments and community stakeholders, enable expanded and beneficial drone operations, and support a data-driven approach to future federal actions — all of which allow the U.S. to maximize drones' potential for job creation and economic benefits.”
The public policy team from Amazon, whose CEO Jeff Bezos has often found himself at odds with Trump, thanked the White House, the DOT, and the FAA in a tweet. The company recently solicited 238 own proposals from states and cities hoping become the home of Amazon’s next headquarters. It’s worth wondering if a town with a pilot program for drone delivery would jump to the top of that list.
Ben Popper contributed to this report.