Not so long ago, many of the news stories about state drone regulations were bad news for the drone industry. Despite efforts from the FAA to establish preemption over the airspace and from drone operators to demonstrate safety and responsibility, local laws proliferated. The result was 28 new pieces of legislation in 2017 alone, most of them restricting drones in some way, according to the National Council of State Legislators. The U.S. regulatory landscape has rapidly begun to resemble what former FAA Administrator Michael Huerta once called a “patchwork quilt of regulations” across the country. This patchwork quilt makes it challenging for drone operators to even figure out what the regulations are, much less do business across multiple state lines.
The tide may now be changing, however. The state and local response to the Department of Transportation’s UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP), designed to give states more influence in federal drone regulation, has been enthusiastic. Perhaps more tellingly, the economic benefit of the drone industry has begun to make itself felt – and that may be leading states to think differently about drones.
Trade in North America: the National Governor’s Association
At a recent meeting of the National Governor’s Association (NGA), the drone industry was present to make its case. George Mathew, CEO and Chairman of leading commercial drone platform Kespry, Inc., talked to DRONELIFE about the meeting and the current state of mind concerning drones.
Focused around themes of innovation and international cooperation, the meeting included representatives of Canada and Mexico. Drones were a natural inclusion for the meeting, says Mathew: “When you are talking about the vibrancy of trade in North America, it’s clear that technological innovation is driving improvement in energy and agriculture – especially the energy conduits between the three countries,” he comments. “In that context, the conversation gravitates towards where key technology elements continue to evolve.”
When the discussion is focused on trade and economic development, says Mathew, the attitude towards drones is favorable. In that context, lawmakers can see that consistency and cooperation are important.
“Because the conversation was in the context of trade and economic development, all of the participants agreed that we’re going to be better off together working on these innovations in a meaningful way,” says Mathew. “It was incredible to hear the level of positivity – everyone was able to see the positive benefits of drones being deployed for good. Customers see their work lives being improved on a consistent basis.”
The FAA and Drone Integration
If the attitude towards the drone industry is shifting to the positive, will the tide of state regulation slow down? “State legislation has passed because there hasn’t been enough clarity on what happens beyond Part 107,” says Mathew, commenting that it’s reasonable for lawmakers to be concerned with clarity. But in addition to keeping very strong – and well-defined- national policies in place, Mathew sees a successful UTM framework as critical to the success of the industry.
“When you think about how this industry is evolving, it’s clear that we need to see everything that’s in the sky. We have a very clear regulatory framework for what happens over 400’ in the airspace: there is no reason to have a fractured view of what happens under 400’,” he says. “We want to work inside of a framework that shows us where everything is.”
Drone integration and robust UTM and communication systems will provide clarity – and assurance. “Once that comfort level is in place and there is a strong national view of how that airspace should be managed, things will be fine,” says Mathew.
While the attitude of state lawmakers may be changing for the better, Mathew says that the industry is critically aware that progress needs to continue. The patchwork quilt of state drone regulations could limit the U.S. drone industry, and make the country less competitive.
“Look at any company that operates across state boundaries,” he says. “If you are in the construction business and you have a multi-state or multi-country business, and you have a patchwork of regulatory frameworks in place, you are going to be less inclined to do business across borders. It will directly affect the flow of trade.”
“The comparison you have to draw is what’s happening in the rest of the world? They’re charging forward,” says Mathew. “We have to be mindful of that. We need to have a more unified view of how we operate as a trade zone.”
“We have to do it safely, we have to do it securely, but we can’t slow down.”