WHATEVER AMERICANS THINK about drones filling the big blue skies of these United States, the president is jazzed about the idea of increasing air traffic—and he’s working to make it happen. On Wednesday, Donald Trump signed a memo directing the Department of Transportation to create a plan to make it easier to fly a drone for commercial purposes in US airspace.
Other countries have pushed ahead with national drone networks, and professional operators in the US have long yearned to follow them up, up, and away. To that end, the feds are indulging them with a new effort: the Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program.
This new initiative will likely excite companies like Amazon and 7-Eleven, but this is bigger than getting quick delivery of Soylent or Slurpees. Drones—officially known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)— have shown their worth in farming, insurance, oil and gas inspections, and aerial photography. They take on tasks that are time-consuming and even dangerous for humans, like when they were used to aid search and rescue efforts during Houston’s Hurricane Harvey. “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,” said Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, in a statement. They also could provide a notable economic infusion by creating up to 100,000 new jobs and adding $82 million to the US economy by 2025, according to The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which lobbies for quadcopters and their ilk.
Of course, there’s a reason the skies aren’t yet buzzing with drones. The Federal Aviation Administration, which creates rules for everything overhead, values safety above all else. It’s got a good thing going with commercial aircraft, and drones could easily mar its nearly perfect record. That’s why commercial drones must currently kowtow to rigorous regulation. Wannabe operators must pass an exam packed with questions about tricksy airspace regulations. Without a waiver, they can’t fly their drones beyond their line of sight, above 400 feet, anywhere near an airport, over people, or at night. The FAA has granted more than 1,300 such waivers and recently gave its first permanent exemption, allowing CNN to fly over crowds whenever it likes. (The news organization must still obey local flight restrictions set by cities or counties.)
The Trump administration wants to make the whole process less fussy. The newly created Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program will ask state, local, and tribal authorities for their input on how to craft rules for drones that please everyone—city authorities, park officials, professional drone pilots, private citizens, all the stakeholders who want a say in what happens in, or over, their backyards.
But the FAA doesn’t want a confusing patchwork of rules.
In an effort to figure out what’ll work best, the DOT is accepting ideas from those local, state, and tribal authorities, who are invited to work with private sector partners (how those partnerships will work, exactly, is TBA). Perhaps someone has a great plan for how to regulate those long flights where the drone pilot can’t watch the drone with their own eyeballs, for example. Or a proposal to only allow package deliveries in the middle of the night when the skies are calm. Or how to use counter-UAS security to keep drones away from places they’re not wanted. How to respect privacy will certainly be a big concern going forward. The DOT will pick at least five proposals out of all the projects, and use those to run experiments over the next three years. Eventually, that will lead to national rules.
That’s not an easy process since these drones will have to share space with the large and small planes and helicopters that already fill urban skies. The FAA handles more than 40,000 flights a day.
“The US is far and away a much more complex airspace than nearly any other country out there,” says Jim Gregory, who leads the Ohio State University efforts for the FAA arm that tackles integrating drones into the national airspace system. Compared to Europe, for example, pilots of small aircraft have a lot of freedom to fly as they like. As long as they follow the rules, they don’t have to file a flight path or get anyone’s permission before taking off. You’d think that looser regulation would make for a warmer welcome for an influx of drones, but the opposite is true. “The implications of that unstructured environment make it more challenging to mix in UAS in a very dynamic and complex airspace,” says Gregory.
Meanwhile, countries with quieter skies are moving ahead. Some have already established national drone delivery networks. Rwanda went first, working with Silicon Valley startup Zipline to deliver emergency supplies of blood when roads are washed out in the rainy season. Tanzania is now doing the same. Switzerland will soon have a network operated by California-company Matternet, with a special permit from the Swiss Federal Office for Civil Aviation.
Existing and wannabe commercial operators are already thrilled that things are finally moving along in the US. Flirtey, which has partnered with NASA, 7-Eleven, and Domino’s Pizza on proof of concept drone deliveries, thinks fast-tracking regulations will lead to advancements everyone will benefit from, like mini mobile medical drones. “Flirtey has developed the technology to deliver emergency goods in disasters and ambulance drones that deliver life saving aid including defibrillators,” says CEO Matthew Sweeny.
The feds will release their full guidance on next steps in the coming days. They may not allow full-on flying freedom just yet, but it’s possible the next time you stock up on Soylent, you’ll be listening for the buzz of a drone instead of the brrrng of your doorbell.