DOT to Launch UAS Integration Pilot Program for Local, National Collaboration

As expected, President Donald Trump is directing the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to launch an initiative that the DOT says will safely test and validate advanced operations for drones in partnership with state and local governments in select jurisdictions.

According to a DOT press release, the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program implements a directive signed today by Trump. The results of the program will be used to accelerate the safe integration of UAS into national airspace, the agency says.

The DOT claims the program will help the 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; and accelerate the approval of operations that currently require special authorizations.

“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,” says Elaine Chao, DOT secretary. “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.”

The DOT says the pilot program will evaluate a variety of operational concepts, including night operations, flights over people, flights beyond the pilot’s line of sight, package delivery, detect-and-avoid technologies, counter-UAS security operations, and the reliability and security of data links between pilots and aircraft.

“Stakeholders will have the opportunity through this program to demonstrate how their innovative technological and operational solutions can address complex unmanned aircraft integration challenges,” says Michael Huerta, administrator of the FAA. “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 DOT encourages prospective local government participants to partner with the private sector to develop pilot proposals.

After evaluating all of the applications, the agency will invite a minimum of five partnerships. In the coming days, the DOT will also publish a Federal Register notice with more details about how applications will be evaluated and how the program will work. A Q&A from the DOT can be found here.

So far, reactions around the industry have been generally positive in response to the announcement.

For example, the Small UAV Coalition says it welcomes the announcement and looks forward to reviewing additional program details released by the DOT in the coming days. Earlier this month, the coalition was part of 30 organizations that wrote a letter to Trump to underscore the need for such a program. Importantly, the letter reiterated the importance of FAA sovereignty.

In addition, though awaiting more details of the memorandum, the Commercial Drone Alliance sees the drone pilot program as an important step in the right direction for the industry.

“The indications we’re getting from the White House, Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration more clearly than ever point to a growing realization of how important the commercial drone industry is to the economy,” says Lisa Ellman, co-executive director of the Commercial Drone Alliance. “We enthusiastically welcome their efforts and creativity in proposing this UAS Integration Pilot Program between state, local and federal governments and industry.”

Gretchen West, co-executive director, adds, “We believe this new program will be another important step toward realizing the full value of commercial drones and delivering on their benefits for the American people. We’re thrilled to be collaborating with government agencies and praise the administration’s enthusiasm for delivering pro-innovation programs to accelerate growth.”

Doug Johnson, vice president of technology policy at the Consumer Technology Association, calls the new pilot program “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 FAA has absolute authority over our national airspace – a foundation of U.S. aviation law for more than 50 years and the main reason for our country’s exceptional air safety record,” Johnson continues. “But the federal government cannot manage policymaking and enforcement by itself. In coordination with the FAA and recognizing the administration’s ultimate authority, states and localities can help move the U.S. toward the safe integration of drones into our national airspace.”

U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Minn., however, believes the program does not allow enough say at the local level. Notably, earlier this year, the congressman sponsored the Drone Innovation Act, which directs the DOT secretary to “work with state and local officials to develop a framework for local operation … to encourage innovation and protect privacy.”

“I’m pleased to see the president take this important action today recognizing the significant role that drones have to play in a 21st century economy,” Lewis says. “As this technology continues to grow and develop, we have to work to successfully incorporate drone use while keeping in mind the specific needs of each of our local communities. That’s exactly what my Drone Innovation Act does.

“While this pilot program recognizes some of the principles I’ve advocated for, unfortunately, it doesn’t go far enough in protecting local control and the rights to privacy and property,” he continues.

“As we move forward, the next step is to ensure that our communities can not only help expand the beneficial uses of drones but that they also have the ability to take effective action when it comes to putting in place reasonable limitations on public use. I look forward to continuing to work alongside the White House and Secretary Chao to see that these foundational principles and rights are upheld.”

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