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Trump administration unleashes commercial drone testing

Trump inspects commercial drone

On Wednesday, President Trump signed an executive order directing Sec. of Transportation Elaine Chao to create the UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) Integration Pilot Program, a flexible legal framework for meshing commercial drone flights with the existing national manned aircraft system.

“In order to maintain American leadership in this emerging industry here at home, our country needs a regulatory framework that encourages innovation while ensuring airspace safety,” Michael Kratsios, a deputy assistant to the president at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, said.

The UAS Integration Pilot Program encourages local government entities to design experimental regulatory models suited to their particular geographies, climates, infrastructures, and economies. The Trump administration wants to see, for example, how farmers’ drones monitoring cornfields in Nebraska might be supervised and governed differently than freight-carrying drones leaving an Amazon Distribution Center in metro Atlanta.

Trump’s executive order effectively gets the FAA out of the drone companies’ way, because a key component of each local model will be an application to waive existing FAA regulations controlling drone activity. More than 1 million drone owners have already registered with the FAA, dwarfing the number of conventional manned aircraft, and commercial drone numbers are expected to increase by a factor of 5 by 2021.

“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.”

Policymakers seem to be finally catching up to the rapid technical advances in the unmanned aerial vehicle sector and have realized that a varied, pro-growth approach to regulation is what the industry needs. Some drone makers like Amazon and Google’s Project Wing have resorted to testing their vehicles in other countries. Right now, Project Wing is dropping burritos from a local tacqueria into people’s backyards outside Canberra, Australia, and Zipline has been delivering units of blood and plasma via drone to rural Rwandans for over a year. The Trump administration’s hope is that its new pilot program will bring these tests—and the business and policy solutions they offer—back home to American shores.

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

Within six months of the pilot program’s launch, the Department of Transportation will sign agreements with at least 5 “Innovation Zones” to begin their participation, which is slated to last for 3 years. These partnerships between governments and UAS operators will be committed to achieving five major policy goals: promoting innovation and economic development, enhancing transportation safety, enhancing workplace safety, improving emergency response and search and rescue functions, and using the radio spectrum efficiently and competitively.

Speaking to the emergency response policy goal, Sec. Chao said “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.”

Wednesday’s executive order follows a June powwow where drone companies like PrecisionHawk, AirMap, Airspace, and Kespry pressed White House officials to simplify regulations concerning their industry. President Trump appears to have heard them loud and clear.

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John Paul Hampstead

John Paul conducts research on multimodal freight markets and holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Michigan. Prior to building a research team at FreightWaves, JP spent two years on the editorial side covering trucking markets, freight brokerage, and M&A.