Assessing damage from natural disasters, such as the recent hurricanes and the wildfires in California, are among the most recent examples in the news of the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS). In the past six years, the market and range of applications for civilian UAS has exploded and their prices have dropped dramatically. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has registered more than one million UAS and certified more than 25,000 remote pilots. Caught between this growing demand for UAS and concerns about the safety, security, and privacy implications of their widespread deployment, the FAA has had to move very carefully toward meeting a Congressional mandate to safely integrate UAS into the national airspace (NAS). To accelerate this process, on October 25 President Trump directed U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao to launch an initiative to safely test and validate advanced operations for UAS in partnership with state, local, and tribal governments in select jurisdictions.
This initiative, called the UAS Integration Pilot Program, will evaluate a variety of operational practices that are currently prohibited or allowed only in very limited circumstances—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. This could generate immediate opportunities for retail commerce, photography, emergency management, the delivery of life-saving medicines, precision agriculture, and infrastructure inspections and monitoring.
The pilot program will also allow testing of new UAS traffic management systems and detection and tracking capabilities, which are needed to fully integrate UAS operations into the NAS. To this end, the FAA Administrator and the NASA Administrator will apply information collected during this program to inform the development of the UAS Traffic Management System mandated by the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016.
According to the White House, the pilot program is designed to provide regulatory certainty and stability to local governments and communities, UAS owners, and operators who are accepted into the program. Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), hailed the announcement as “an opportunity for state, local, and tribal governments, along with the UAS industry, to collaborate with the FAA to further develop a federal policy framework for integrating UAS into the skies above communities across the nation.” He explained that the pilot program “will offer a data-driven approach to allow for expanded UAS operations.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation will soon release a guidance document to address many details of the program, such as whether private companies (e.g., Amazon) will be free to operate drones over populated or sensitive areas and the details of the application and evaluation process that will result in accepting at least five partnerships.
Since the FAA first began to require drone registration in December 2015, UAS operators have had to contend with a morass of requirements from a variety of regulatory bodies, now including the National Transportation Safety Board, which actually determines whether an operator has violated the rules set by the FAA. Additionally, state or local authorities are also increasingly regulating UAS use: as many as 20 states and dozens of municipalities across the country have enacted their own laws regarding these devices. These are probably the inevitable growing pains of a new industry that promises to spawn hundreds of new companies and generate tens of thousands of jobs — while prematurely graying the hair of aircraft pilots and aviation safety officials.