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Drone Pilot Programs Take Off

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Drone Pilot Programs Take Off

June 5, 2018

Developing an appropriate regulatory framework for any industry is always difficult. But the challenge is greater when new technology radically departs from the status quo, as is the case with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones. The range of commercial uses is wide, ranging from agriculture to remote medical equipment delivery.

The Department of Transportation recently announced  ten UAS integration pilot programs, comprised of state, local and tribal governments.  Winners range from state departments of transportation, to cities, to county agencies, to academic institutions, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. These demonstrations will be essential in helping government entities better understand regulatory issues for different roles and functions drones may play in the coming years.

The findings of the three-year pilot program will help agencies balance concerns with the potential benefits of this new industry, which could reach $82 billion and create 100,000 jobs within a decade.

Current rules restrict the actions of drones. For example, without a waiver they must remain within the line of sight of their operators, flying over uninvolved people, flying above 400 feet. These rules limit the number of actions that drones can undertake. Something as simple as package delivery to a person’s home in a suburb would not be allowed without special authorization because it would entail flying over uninvolved people and likely beyond the line of sight of the operator. 

As I have written previously, a memo from President Trump called for the creation of this pilot program in part due to the recognition that development and testing had to some extent shifted to other countries due to a more supportive regulatory environment.

The pilot projects will include actions that currently require special authorizations, such as nighttime operation, and span ten geographically disparate states that vary significantly in terms of climate. The wide range of activities being explored will also give the Department of Transportation more insight into the relevant regulatory questions that might arise within some of the uses for commercial drones that are closest to realization.

Chosen out of 149 total applications, each of the 10 awardees will sign Memoranda of Understanding that specify the actions, data sharing requirements, and different agency responsibilities.

Most of the awardees include partnerships with major companies such as Apple, FedEx, Intel, Microsoft, and Uber, which have been keen to explore the potential for commercial drones related to their various areas of business. A regulatory framework that facilitates further investment and innovation would better support the development of new applications for this technology that could benefit consumers and companies alike.

Not every project awardee will have a strictly commercial focus: the awardee in Reno, Nevada will integrate drones into the delivery of medical equipment such as medical defibrillators, which could save as many as 34 lives per year. Near Ft. Myers, Florida an awardee will use a drone to control and monitor the mosquito population with the goal of fighting the spread of the Zika virus in the area. While drones could have a number of valuable commercial contributions, they could potentially help improve public safety and make it easier to maintain the nation’s infrastructure assets.

The pilot programs might just be the beginning when it comes to expanded use of drones for non-recreational purposes. Department of Transportation Secretary Chao recently wrote that some of the applications that were not chosen for the program would still be able to move forward under existing rules, with waivers in the instances where they are required. Between the pilot program and additional waivers, the United States is again positioning itself to be at the forefront of an emerging technology.

Wider non-recreational uses of drones raise questions about privacy and security, which need to be balanced against potential benefits. More logistical questions such as how to integrate drones into current airspace regulations will also need to be navigated. The data collected from these pilot programs will help the relevant agencies better understand the context before putting rules into place.

This pilot program is a positive step in that direction, and the different demonstration projects should be followed closely, as they will provide valuable insights to companies and government officials. 

Charles Hughes is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesHHughes.

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