White House Announces Drone Regulation Pilot Program

 - October 25, 2017, 3:43 PM
The Grand Forks, North Dakota, Sheriff's Department uses the AeroVironment Qube quadcopter. (Photo: Bill Carey)

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) will conduct a pilot program to evaluate how state and local governments might participate in regulating drone traffic at low altitudes—a role the FAA now serves. The department expects to select at least five industry-government partnerships to test the proposition.

According to the October 25 announcement, President Donald Trump issued a memorandum directing Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to begin the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program. The DOT will issue an official public notice in the Federal Register in the coming days with details about the application process. Selections will be made within 180 days of the notice for what is planned as a three-year program.

Participating local governments and drone operators will have “regulatory certainty and stability” to conduct various operations, including night flights, flights over people, flights beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight and package delivery, the DOT said. The program also will serve as a testbed for detect-and-avoid and counter-UAS technologies.

Importantly, the partnerships will evaluate the issue of federal preemption as applied to drones—testing where and when a community should regulate low-flying aircraft relative to the FAA. The federal government has claimed sovereignty of the airspace since 1926, but drones have complicated that understanding.

The pilot program will draw on the findings of a “roles and responsibilities” work group of the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee (DAC) called Task Group 1. In July, AIN reported that state and local governments largely were not participating on the work group, apparently due to concerns that industry was over-represented. More recently, The Washington Post, citing internal documents and emails, reported that the process “has been riven by suspicion and dysfunction.” One of the newspaper’s sources complained that a representative of Shenzhen, China-based DJI, the world’s leading small-drone manufacturer, co-chairs the task group.

Plans call for Task Group 1 and other work groups to summarize their findings at the next full DAC meeting, which is scheduled for November 8 at Amazon headquarters in Seattle. Pre-registration is required to attend the meeting, according to federal advisory organization RTCA, which manages the committee.