White House to test federal-local sharing of drone regulation

closeup of silver aircraft engine

October 18, 2017 - As soon as the next few days, the White House is expected to announce model programs for easing the regulatory logjam on drones, industry officials said.
Devised by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, according to these officials, the programs would test technical advances and experiment with oversight in limited airspace, for the first time linking Federal Aviation Administration rules with city, county or state requirements. The aim would be to expand uses for unmanned aircraft nationwide.

According to industry officials, the plan envisions continued FAA authority over commercial drone operations between 200 feet and 400 feet in designated test areas, with drones at lower altitudes primarily regulated by states, counties or localities. The FAA currently has full authority over airspace at any altitude, though debate over giving more say to individuals and communities is escalating in Congress and in the industry.

Ultimately there could be 10 or more discrete model programs across the U.S., though some industry officials expect the White House to start with fewer. Details including altitude distinctions also still could change, they said.

A White House spokeswoman declined to comment. Earlier this month deputy White House science adviser Michael Kratsios signaled the changes, telling a drone conference in San Jose the administration favors “more engagement between industry and state, local and tribal governments.” He added, “We are going to need local partnerships and community buy-in.”

After the speech, the drone industry’s leading trade association asked President Donald Trump for a pilot program “to explore the best options for states and municipalities to address their needs” regarding drone operations.

FAA chief Michael Huerta, who also has hinted at spreading the authority, told an earlier drone conference in Las Vegas that Washington needs “greater clarity as to what state and local governments would like to see, and what roles they would like to play.”

The FAA last year adopted final rules covering commercial operations of drones weighing less than 55 pounds and typically flying below 400 feet. Operators need special approvals to fly at night, beyond the sight of ground-based operators and in proximity to U.S. airports.

White House officials previously discussed the issue with drone proponents, suggesting a potential presidential directive partly would reflect concerns about rising foreign competition and the goal of promoting domestic operations.

The drone-safety debate has heated up as concerns have risen about the risk of collision between drones and manned aircraft. Two weeks ago, federal accident investigators opened a probe into a Sept. 21 collision between a civilian drone and an Army UH-60 helicopter east of Staten Island, N.Y. Last weekend, Canada’s transport minister, Marc Garneau, announced what experts have called the first verified collision in North America between a drone and a commercial aircraft, a turboprop descending to land at Quebec City’s international airport. There weren’t any injuries in either incident.

The FAA’s top technical advisory organization separately is developing engineering and operational standards for drones, including larger versions with more sophisticated avoidance technology. Such standards are anticipated by 2020 or later, but the FAA and industry officials are eager to open up U.S. airspace to greater use of smaller drones before then.

The White House’s strategy, however, could backfire if Congress permits a flurry of opposing state and local restrictions—potentially addressing complex privacy concerns—to further impede industry growth. Operators and trade groups have been lobbying lawmakers for months to block such legislation.

Trump administration officials have told industry leaders that even under shared local-state jurisdiction, the FAA will retain final authority over safety and other operational issues.

Source: The Wall Street Journal