Wednesday, October 25, 2017

White House Kicks Off Test Program for Commercial Drones: Presidential directive calls for shared jurisdiction between federal, state and local agencies

The Wall Street Journal
By Andy Pasztor
Updated Oct. 25, 2017 1:14 p.m. ET

The White House has launched a pilot program expanding commercial drone operations by calling for test sites featuring shared oversight between federal agencies and state, local or tribal governments.

The presidential directive issued Wednesday, while short on specifics, establishes a framework for trying out new regulatory initiatives and gradually opening up more airspace nationwide to such unmanned aircraft, likely including package delivery services. Creating and learning lessons from such sites will help “enhance the safety of the American public, increase the efficiency and productivity of American industry and create tens of thousands of new American jobs,” according to the document signed by President Donald Trump.

Within a year, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Department are supposed to work with operators and local officials to set up locations testing novel air-traffic management networks, along with proposed radio or cellular systems designed to track low-altitude drones. The move comes amid increasing industry frustration with what drone proponents consider regulatory gridlock stemming from safety and security concerns throughout federal agencies.

Industry officials previously said they expected a handful to perhaps as many as 10 localized tests to be approved, but the White House didn’t provide any details. The Transportation Department said it was looking for “a minimum of five partnerships.”

The initiative was rolled out as another example of Mr. Trump’s campaign to make U.S. companies more competitive versus foreign rivals by eliminating federal restrictions stifling innovation. “America’s skies are changing” with the number of commercial drones projected to increase fivefold by 2021, Michael Kratsios, deputy chief of the White House science office, told reporters. But because U.S. regulatory structure “has not kept pace with this change,” he said, high-tech companies have been forced “to seek commercial testing and deployment opportunities overseas.”

An array of drone proponents, including Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google unit, have been pushing for federal action to free up airspace for drone flights, but so far disputes among industry segments have impeded progress by blocking consensus on the best way to remotely monitor drones. Law-enforcement officials have insisted on general agreement before signing off on widespread flights.

The industry splits are so pronounced, according to industry officials familiar with the matter, that FAA chief Michael Huerta is considering asking some members of an advisory drone panel he appointed to resume deliberations. The panel presented a report with no consensus earlier this month.

In addition to satisfying industry, the directive aims to reduce friction sparked by many local and state officials complaining that the FAA’s regulatory road map gives them little opportunity to participate in decisions about future drone operations. By emphasizing local participation and buy-in regarding industry proposals from the beginning, Mr. Kratsios said a major goal is to give “state, local and tribal governments a voice and a stake” in how the industry develops.

The details are still unclear, but industry and government officials said that local officials will have added clout to work out their role in overseeing and monitoring flights, particularly those below 200 feet.

Mr. Kratsios said another major goal is to “provide policy makers the data they need to bring about the future of American aviation.”

Drones weighing up to 55 pounds already are being used for an extensive array of commercial applications, from agriculture to real estate to inspecting pipelines and bridges. But FAA regulations generally restrict flights to altitudes of no more than 400 feet, during daylight hours and within sight of operators on the ground. Similarly, the agency is drafting, but hasn’t formally proposed, regulations permitting routine flights over crowds or populated areas.

As part of the White House initiative, federal regulators will seek out locations to test package delivery uses, as well as flights conducted further than now permitted from ground controllers and over people. The directive explicitly indicates the pilot integration program “will increase the number and complexity of (drone) operations across the nation” and “accelerate testing of currently restricted” operations.

Though delivering packages to consumers eventually is expected to be one of the fastest-growing uses for drones, Wednesday’s announcement suggests that major technical and regulatory challenges remain.

Amazon, for instance, is proposing a system equipping its delivery drones -- each envisioned to transport up to five pounds -- with sensors and related safeguards able to detect and automatically avoid other unmanned aircraft. But such technology hasn’t yet been tested on a large scale, and a host of policy and air-traffic control issues must be resolved before the FAA is likely to authorize routine delivery services.

Sean Cassidy, a senior Amazon official working on the issue, told an industry conference in Dublin this week that any system would have to be reliable enough to maintain safe operations even if core communication and control capabilities were degraded.”We absolutely, positively have to be safe from day one,” he said, adding that Amazon recognizes any solution must benefit the entire industry.

In a statement, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao noted that along with testing concepts for night operations, flights over people and package delivery options, the goal is to evaluate “detect-and-avoid technologies” plus systems capable of identifying and neutralizing hostile or suspect drones. But when the agency listed industry segments that “could see immediate opportunities” from test sites, it didn’t include package delivery. Rather, the department identified photography, emergency management, agriculture and “infrastructure inspections” as likely to enjoy benefits most rapidly.

Original article can be found here ➤

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