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Seeing Government Uses, Pennsylvania County Vies for Federal Drone Project

The program will test and develop ways the public and private sectors can maximize the use of drones, with safety and privacy concerns at a forefront.

(TNS) — With the speed of technology providing challenges to existing laws, the federal government is trying to get a handle on how to regulate the burgeoning billion-dollar drone industry.

Berks County Commissioners Chairman Christian Y. Leinbach is pushing for local government entities and businesses in the region to play a part of helping decide how unmanned aircraft systems, known as UAS, will be used and overseen across the country.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao announced in October the details of the federal government's UAS Integration Pilot Program, which was created for at least five yet-to-be-selected communities across the United States. The program will test and develop ways the public and private sectors can maximize the use of drones, with safety and privacy concerns in mind.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is looking to choose its test locations after the final application deadline on Jan. 4, and officials in Berks County have been working to be one of them since November.

Leinbach said Berks County needs to tell a compelling story of how its public and private sectors would work together on drones, highlighting businesses with both experience flying them and a desire to expand on their use in a less regulated environment, and businesses that recognize their usefulness but have not proceeded because of the regulations.

"If we in Berks County want to be attractive to companies where technology is important, then we have to demonstrate that we care about the technology ourselves, that we are forward-thinking and that we're willing to do what is necessary to put our community and our businesses in a stronger position than competitor counties here in the commonwealth (of Pennsylvania) and even outside," Leinbach said.

Leinbach, who learned about the drone program through his participation in the National Association of Counties' Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the federal initiative would be a potential economic boon to the selected areas because of a three-year relaxation of regulations on drone operators.

Current regulations require waivers in certain flying conditions, including flying at night, flying over people, delivering packages or flying out of the line of sight of the pilot. Leinbach said almost all waiver applications are rejected by the Federal Aviation Administration.

"The waivers make it very difficult for businesses that are trying to figure out the value of the use of drones in their business," Leinbach said.

Conversations were started in November with local businesses who are already using drones, Leinbach said, and he encourages businesses to get in touch with him or Brian Gottschall, director of the Berks County Department of Emergency Services, before the Jan. 4 deadline so the county can strengthen its application.

Leinbach said admission to the drone program would allow emergency services to experiment with UAS technology, including sending a drone out to the scene of an accident to take aerial photos and video to aid in accident reconstruction, a task that would take minutes instead of hours to complete.

Leinbach also pointed to the possibility of using drones to deliver inter-office mail between county-owned buildings.

Gottschall was appointed to serve as the point person for the county's drone program and its application to take part in the test. Gottschall said many of the local businesses to which the county reached out were challenged by the deadline for formulating a plan for using drones in their work.

A drone enthusiast himself, Gottschall said he bought his first UAS in 2014 and has been experimenting with the technological capabilities and applications for emergency services since then.

Gottschall said the federal UAS program is about testing the waters of fewer regulations on drones in the hopes it creates lessons that can be used to develop future regulations or laws affecting the technology.

"(Federal officials) appear to want to test these waters in a plethora of different environments, not just New York City or Los Angeles and places like that, because I would assume that they recognize that what works there may not work in Nebraska," Gottschall said. "They're creating an environment to make these problems happen so that people can work the problems out."

©2017 the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.