The White House is expected to announce model pilot programs to test federal-local sharing of airspace regulations within the next few days.
These proposed programs will explore sharing airspace oversight between the FAA and state, local, and tribal, authorities.
The details are still fuzzy, but the broad strokes outline is that the FAA would continue to have authority over commercial drone operations between 200 and 400 feet in these pilot program areas, while drones operating at lower altitudes would be regulated by state, county, tribal, and other local authorities.
Eventually there would be ten of these programs in place throughout the U.S., although the initial roll out will most likely be with fewer sites.
Split in the Drone Advisory Committee
Apparently these proposed pilot programs are the result of the fall out from a split in the federal Drone Advisory Committee (or DAC), which happened a little over a week ago.
On October 10, the Wall Street Journal reported that the DAC “couldn’t reach consensus on basic questions regarding categories of drones” that should require remote identification and tracking.
Two days after the WSJ article, AUVSI CEO Bryan Wynne wrote an open letter to President Trump, co-signed by 29 stakeholders in the industry including Intel, DJI, and Amazon, in which he advocated for exactly the type of pilot program now being drafted by the White House:
For months, we have advocated on Capitol Hill for a pilot program that allows state and local governments, along with UAS industry stakeholders, to develop a coordinated effort with the FAA concerning UAS airspace integration . . . A pilot program would allow for a data-driven process, within a controlled operational environment, to explore the best options for states and municipalities to address their needs, as it relates to different types of UAS operations.
This is speculation, but it seems that drone industry stakeholders are trying to anticipate the concerns of local government and security forces by taking their own steps to both ensure safety and appease local authorities, before the decision is taken out of their hands.
Some in the industry have even interpreted DJI’s release of AeroScope last week—a new solution that remotely registers and identifies drones—as an attempt to placate security and local authority interests.
The AUVSI letter was written in part as a response to Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios’ recent call for “working across federal, state, local and tribal lines toward a common goal of safely integrating UAS into the national airspace.”
It looks like those who penned that letter will be getting what they asked for in the form of these federal-local pilot programs to test the sharing of airspace authority.
One lingering concern as we dive deeper into the debate about sharing airspace authority is that, if every locality can create its own rules concerning commercial drone operations, the result could well be a hodgepodge of regulations, penalties, and fees, and the individual operator will find it nearly impossible to work.
Only time will tell if these pilot programs lead to the consensus and stability Kratsios and others have called for, or if they actually represent a Pandora’s box, opening the door to local involvement in airspace authority which will be impossible to close, and which will throw the industry into such tumult that solopreneurs and others simply can’t do business any more.
Want to know who’s on the Drone Advisory Committee? Here is a list of the members of the DAC.
As you’ll see, the list includes drone industry leaders, as well as representatives from local governments and airports. Conspicuously absent from the list is anyone in law enforcement / national security (although we wonder if the member from Lockheed Martin, whose official domain is omitted, might fill that role).