The U.S. Department of Transportation last week officially launched a pilot program that will allow states to test new types of drone operations, including package deliveries.
Melanie Zanona | The Hill
President Trump directed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last month to create a pilot program to allow state and local governments to propose expanded drone operations that can include flights over people, nighttime operations and flying beyond the visual line of sight — all of which are currently prohibited.
The effort is intended to accelerate the integration of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace.
“These partnerships will allow local communities to experiment with new technologies like package deliveries, emergency drone inspections, and more, on terms that work for them and in ways that support a unified and safe airspace,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said at the kick-off event at the agency’s headquarters.
Under the three-year program, localities are being encouraged to partner with the private sector to propose a wide range of drone operations, such as allowing package deliveries, and the FAA will determine whether to accept them into the pilot program on a case-by-case basis.
A successful application, according to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, should have a “well-defined framework” for managing flights and a “strong industry partner.”
After the notice is published in the federal register, applicants will have 20 days to file a notice of intent to the FAA and 57 days to complete their proposals. The agency will have 180 days to enter into an agreement with applicants. The agency will accept a minimum of five communities for the program.
If approved, the FAA will grant the localities a waiver and use testing data from those operations to inform federal policymaking in the future. The agency, however, said it will not be holding off on rulemaking during the the duration program.
“What we learn through testing operational concepts in these communities will be invaluable and give us clarity on rules that ensure safety and continued innovation,” Huerta said.
The FAA issued its first rule permitting small, routine drone flights last year, but the agency still prohibits most commercial drone flights over populated areas, nighttime operations and flying beyond the visual line of sight. The FAA has been considering proposals to lift some of those restrictions.
“We need greater clarity on how state and local governments want to be involved in this process,” Huerta said. “The new Drone Integration Pilot Program … will start providing that clarity.”