New Program Will Help Spark an Era of Drone Innovation
Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation kicked off a new and exciting era in aviation, opening the skies to advanced drone operations in regions across the nation. An entirely new way of thinking about how to safely integrate drones in American communities is underway as the federal government recognizes that state and local governments are key contributors to realizing the full economic and social benefits of drones.
The DOT’s new initiative, known as the Integration Pilot Program (IPP), is critically important to America’s economic future, and was highly competitive with over 150 communities applying to participate. The program will allow advanced operations for drones, including flight over people, at night, and beyond line of sight — all presently prohibited by FAA regulations. Focusing on these key use cases will ensure innovation happens here in the U.S. rather than overseas.
Anticipating the societal concerns these new operations would raise, Secretary Chao in announcing the selected regions stated: “Instead of a dictate from Washington, this program takes another approach. It allows interested communities to test drones in ways that they are comfortable with.” Working collaboratively with state, local, and tribal governments is a departure from how aviation has historically operated in the U.S. For decades, the FAA exercised an exclusive form of centralized bureaucratic control, with most flights directly managed by the federal government. What’s more, the FAA relied on technology procured through an expensive and slow process that couldn’t keep pace with advancements in industry, subject to rules focused almost entirely on federal interests. That approach was adequate for the 5,000 commercial flights underway on a daily basis. It also worked because manned aircraft have generally operated well away from people and property, not triggering issues of local concern as society rarely sees manned aircraft flights below 500 ft.
Drones, though, deliver value in close proximity to the people and property that they serve in search-and-rescue, inspection, and law-enforcement use cases, to name a few. Registered drones already number over 1 million — and that number is growing rapidly. In contrast to manned aircraft, today’s drones are required by regulation to operate within 400 feet of the ground or within 400 feet of a structure. In this low-altitude environment, the airspace has more in common with the ground than our wide-open skies where manned aircraft traditionally operate.
Because of their unique characteristics and operating patterns, drones are also the subject of more social concern than manned aircraft. Can a package delivery drone deliver in a residential neighborhood after 10:30pm? What about flights over an outdoor farmers market or a hotel pool? What about repeated flights that regularly traverse in front of the windows of a penthouse apartment that had previously never experienced noise or view obstructions? When a small brush fire happens, how will that information be communicated to an autonomous drone without local officials armed with technology providing input?
Thankfully, such questions are the bread and butter of state and local governments, departments of transportation, zoning boards, and other officials working in our cooperative federalist system. State and local governments know about sensitive sites such as prisons, power plants, critical infrastructure, and schools. They are aware of emergency activity such as a house fire that would likely never draw the attention of the FAA, but would be a matter of significance for firefighters dealing with an autonomous drone en route to conduct a nearby roof inspection. If the federal government attempted to aggregate data like this in a nation as large and diverse as the United States, it would be overwhelmed by the challenge and the nation would never achieve the full benefits of drones. Or worse, we might see a suboptimal implementation of regulations, steered by industry players with the resources to dominate the federal process.
Recognizing these facts, DOT created a program that allows states to determine how drones will be integrated into communities. There are and will be legitimate privacy, nuisance, trespass, and other concerns related to the time, manner, and place of drone operations. Under the IPP, geographically diverse communities, ranging from California and North Carolina to North Dakota and Nevada, will help the nation create processes and technology that address these types of challenges. To avoid a patchwork of different laws across the country, the federal government will recognize local rules as part of modern airspace management platforms subject to recognized standards, much as street signs throughout the U.S. are uniform though their placement is subject to local decisions.
I’ve seen firsthand how this works. My company, AirMap, has provided technology to Kansas and abroad to Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan. Our airspace management platform has powered long-distance drone delivery flights that take account of such variable conditions as manned air traffic, the safety and privacy of people on the ground, the local concerns of mayors, and constantly changing rules related to emergency conditions, weather, and large public gatherings. We know for a fact that involving more stakeholders allows for carefully calibrated rules that convert massive “no fly zones” into narrowly tailored “yes so long as” zones that communities and industry can embrace.
While innovation is about to take flight, it won’t be without a bit of turbulence. Large companies in search of monopolies and legacy aerospace players in search of big government contracts may combine forces to try to disrupt progress and push out local input. That’s why the DOT program is so ingenious: Once the IPP demonstrates that high-scale commercial activity happens because of public support, not despite it, the states will solidify their proper role as enablers of commerce and laboratories of innovation.
It’s an exciting time in aviation — made safe through federal rules, powered by modern technology, and accelerated through the input and wisdom of the states.
Gregory S. McNeal is a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Pepperdine University, and co-founder of the airspace management company, AirMap.