The White House on Wednesday announced it will allow a swift and dramatic expansion of the way drones are used across the U.S., saying President Trump was following through on his promise to the industry to slash regulatory barriers that are sending companies to test the technology overseas.
Trump signed a memorandum directing Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to create a pilot program allowing local, state and tribal governments to apply to establish "innovation zones" where far-reaching drone operations would be permitted. Those zones could be as large as an entire state.
That would allow companies or governments to operate drones in ways that are restricted by the Federal Aviation Administration under current rules. Jurisdictions might, for example, be able to deliver packages overnight across an entire community, something not done under today's restrictions.
The proposal offers a path for jurisdictions that are enthusiastic about drones to push ahead quickly. It does not, however, answer growing questions about how communities that want to curtail drone usage might proceed.
The federal government has ruled the nation's "navigable airspace" since early last century, and the proliferation of low-flying quadcopters and other unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, has raised questions about what powers local governments have over their communities.
Legislation has been introduced in Congress to further limit what local and state governments can do — or to give them greater authority to impose "reasonable" limits on flights under 200 feet, for example.
An administration official said the goal of the pilot program "is to enable, not restrict, UAS integration into the national airspace above local jurisdictions."
However, the official said, in the context of expansion certain limits could be part of the mix.
"Localities that want to propose reasonable time, manner, and place restrictions in expanding UAS operations in their localities would be a model that could be piloted," the official said.
How that might work in practice remains unclear, as are some other program details, including how the U.S. Department of Transportation would determine if there is widespread local support for the state or local proposals.
White House officials said a transformation is already afoot and the economic development and social benefits of broadening drone use demand action to clear bureaucratic hurdles.
"America's skies are changing — UAS now outnumber manned aircraft, which had dominated our airspace since World War II," said Michael Kratsios, deputy assistant to the president at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
"Our regulatory framework has not kept pace with this change," he added.
Kratsios noted that Google's Project Wing, which is building delivery drones, is testing in Australia and Amazon, which is aggressively pursuing packing delivery, is testing in the United Kingdom.
(Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Kratsios said further opening American skies to infrastructure inspections and emergency management operations, and enabling commerce will be broadly beneficial and provide the government with data for rewriting regulations moving forward.
The White House said the pilot program will streamline the permission process in three key areas that are now restricted: flying over people, at night, and beyond the view of an operator.
Department of Transportation officials said in a statement that the pilot program will also tackle potential safety issues and examine how technology might address them. Those include using "detect and avoid" technologies, so drones would potentially veer away from collisions, and testing ways of disabling them under certain circumstances.
The administration said the program will also allow the testing of new air traffic management systems for drones, and help explore the best tech tools for tracking where drones go, an issue that has divided industry leaders and others.
Minnesota Rep. Jason Lewis (R) said he was pleased to see Trump's recognition of the role of drones in the nation's future growth, but that the pilot program "doesn't go far enough in protecting local control and the rights to privacy and property."
Lewis said an important next step "is to ensure that our communities cannot 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." Lewis said the bipartisan legislation he has proposed does that.
Doug Johnson, vice president of technology policy for the Consumer Technology Association, called the Trump administration's plan "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."
Johnson said the move will help realize the "more than 100,000 jobs and $82 billion in economic impact" drones can provide in the next decade. The group says 3.4 million drones will be sold in the U.S. this year, up 40 percent from 2016.
Federal transportation officials said governments should "partner with the private sector to develop pilot proposals." They said they will "invite a minimum of five partnerships," though that total could end up significantly higher.
The president's memo said Chao should, in coordination with the secretaries of defense and homeland security, as well as the attorney general, take "necessary and appropriate" steps to "mitigate risks" to public safety and national security when choosing proposals, though it did not describe those steps.
Officials would use "existing authorities to grant exceptions, exemptions, authorizations, and waivers from FAA regulations." In addition to trying out innovative ideas and developing future rules, another program objective would be to "test and evaluate various models of State, local, and tribal government involvement in the development and enforcement of Federal regulations" for drones.
The memo instructs Chao to begin the first pilot program within a year.