Automation

Trump Creates Path for Drone Testing with Executive Order

The order creates an FAA-monitored pilot program for companies to prove their technology can function safely in the real world.

by Benny Evangelista, San Francisco Chronicle / October 26, 2017
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(TNS) -- The Trump administration on Wednesday smoothed the way for companies like Alphabet and Amazon to ramp up testing of drones for package deliveries and other commercial uses in the United States.

President Trump signed an executive order that creates a government-monitored pilot program to allow companies to prove drones can be operated safely. Drone proponents have complained that existing Federal Aviation Administration regulations were keeping the industry from reaching its potential.

Under Trump’s directive, the FAA and the Transportation Department could grant waivers for restrictions that now, for example, prohibit flights over people, at night and beyond the line of sight of the drone operator.

The directive could help Alphabet, the parent company of Google, increase domestic testing of Project Wing. The research project, part of the company’s X innovation lab, has been testing delivery drones in southeastern Australia.

Project Wing said it was “encouraged” by Trump’s directive, although it would not say whether U.S. tests were planned.

“Project Wing and other commercial drone operations can offer many benefits to the public by improving the speed, cost and environmental impact of transporting goods,” the company said, adding that real-world testing is “critical.”

The president’s directive answers requests by drone industry leaders to relax restrictions, so that companies can move forward with plans to cash in on the potential of drone services. In June, Trump hosted a White House meeting with a group of industry leaders, including George Mathew, CEO of Menlo Park commercial drone company Kespry. Trump held one of Kespry’s drones while speaking with Mathew.

But rather than wait, drone companies have gone overseas to escape U.S. air regulations. Amazon, for example, has been testing drones in England to deliver packages in 30 minutes or less.

“Amazon supports the administration’s efforts to create a pilot program aimed at keeping America at the forefront of aviation and drone innovation,” Gur Kimchi, vice president of Amazon Prime Air, said in a statement.

Steven Miller, a drone law expert with the Hanson Bridgett law firm in San Francisco, said the directive “has the potential to have a significant impact” on the industry, but “there are a lot of unknowns.”

“I don’t think anyone knows exactly how or when the Trump directive will be implemented and how the FAA will interpret requests for waivers under any new program,” Miller said in an email. “As with other Trump initiatives, there may be attempts by states or even consumer groups to block initiatives that are perceived to impact safety and/or privacy.”

Santa Clara microprocessor giant Intel, which has a drone development team, praised the administration’s announcement, saying drones proved “instrumental” helping emergency crews and insurance companies in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

In a statement, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao noted drones help assess damage in emergencies, including California’s wildfires.

The FAA’s current drone regulations will remain in place. But Trump directed the Transportation Department to create a test program and invite proposals submitted by partnerships between drone operators and local, state or tribal governments. The department will pick at least five partnerships to go forward with tests, which would occur in designated zones. The zones could cover flights up to 200 feet above ground, but the Transportation Department could approve testing up to 400 feet.

Test results could also help with a low-flying unmanned aircraft air traffic management system being developed separately by NASA.

“Our country needs a regulatory framework that encourages innovation while ensuring airspace safety,” Michael Kratsios of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy told reporters in a conference call.

Safety concerns over drones have risen after the collision, reported last month, of a civilian drone and an Army helicopter over Staten Island, N.Y., and the first verified collision in North America between a drone and a commercial aircraft, which occurred this month in Quebec. And rogue drones interfered with firefighters battling wildfires in the North Bay and the Santa Cruz Mountains.

However, officials like San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee have pressed the FAA to allow local governments to be able to enact laws controlling drones over their cities, including bans in places where flights might cause safety hazards. The FAA maintains that it alone should regulate the nation’s airspace.

“The mayor believes there is a strong role for local government to regulate this emerging technology to ensure public safety, privacy, and to protect against nuisance,” the mayor’s office said.

Miller noted the FAA has granted its first waiver, to CNN, for drone flights over crowds — for a type of lightweight drone designed to break apart if it crashes.

©2017 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.