We’re witnessing the birth of one of the most exciting technology sectors since the PC, or even the mobile phone. Drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), represent a sea change for existing businesses, and a white space for completely new businesses.
It’s an economic boom in the making. Estimates vary, but all the numbers are big. A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report estimated the global market value of UAS-powered solutions at over $127 billion. Here in the United States, some have predicted that the domestic UAS industry will grow to be an $82 billion market while creating more than 100,000 new jobs. And the FAA recently estimated that by 2020, 11 million commercial drones will have been sold in the United States.
But as big and exciting as these numbers are, they are built on the assumption that our regulatory frameworks keep pace. There are great benefits to drone integration, but there are safety, privacy and security issues that must be tackled, too.
This growing industry represents an opportunity for President-elect Donald Trump, as he seeks to follow through on campaign promises to create jobs across the country. Trump announced his intent to nominate Elaine Chao as Transportation secretary, and it is heartening to know that Chao knows her way around the agency, having worked there before. The new administration can enable the success of this new market in the United States by accelerating current efforts to integrate drones into our national airspace.
Under the legal framework in our country, commercial drones fly under the oversight of the FAA. This past August, Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations at long last took effect. For the first time ever, the rules broadly authorize commercial drone flights without requiring a special license from the FAA. This was a significant and critical step forward, and the FAA should be praised for its work.
However, much more needs to be done to realize the full potential of drone technology.
Still in its infancy, the commercial drone industry represents an important opportunity for the next administration.
There are short-term and long-term goals that are critical to supporting commercial drone integration and adoption:
1) Enable the growth of commercial drones through expansion of the operating envelope.
To take full advantage of the safety and efficiency benefits of drones, companies need to be able to fly in urban and suburban environments, where people are. To inspect pipelines and railroads, they need to be able to fly beyond visual line of sight. To respond to disasters, they need to be able to fly at night. But all of these are currently prohibited without a special waiver from FAA, which are burdensome and costly for industry.
As the FAA itself recently admitted, the waiver process is limping along. After 76 waivers were issued the day Part 107 went into effect, we have seen a total of 239 waivers granted — with a long line waiting in a queue. The waiver process must be streamlined. Waivers themselves must also offer substantive relief for companies seeking to fly safely in the real world. And we need additional rulemakings implemented quickly for flights over people, beyond line of sight and at night that expand the current operating envelope safely.
2) Streamline policymaking through coordinated government approach.
The new administration must promote a “whole of government” approach to integration in order to enable the broader infrastructure for this industry to succeed. NASA is tackling critical issues through its Unmanned Aircraft Traffic Management efforts. The FCC is considering spectrum issues. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration facilitated a multi-stakeholder process to devise voluntary best practices for privacy. The White House recently hosted an innovation event around drone technology, and this was a symbolically significant step.
The next administration must keep this momentum for innovation going, and streamline policymaking activity among government agencies to find solutions that enable commercial drone integration safely, broadly, and in a timely way.
3. Enhance government-industry collaboration
To properly capitalize on the possibilities ahead, innovators and policymakers must work more closely together — a process called “polivation.” Innovators must help policymakers understand what is possible with the technology, while policymakers must create rules of the road that offer the best returns from drone technology that will benefit everyone, while protecting Americans’ safety and privacy.
We have seen great progress from the FAA in recent years. This fall, the first meeting of the Drone Advisory Committee was convened, bringing together both large and small companies with policymakers to craft solutions for challenges facing the industry. But still, challenges remain. There needs to be greater government-industry collaboration at the working level. And the government must make it easier for everyone to participate in the regulatory process.
Notably, the work ahead is not just on the government side. The industry must do its part, including assisting the next administration. That is why this summer, UAS industry associations pledged to implement a broad educational effort around privacy best practices for users of drone technology. The Commercial Drone Alliance recently sent a letter to the transition team offering assistance to hire commercial drone experts into the new administration. The Commercial Drone Alliance stands ready to assist the Trump administration as it grapples with all of these important issues.
As technically advanced of the rest of the world the U.S. is, we have ceded leadership on commercial drone policy to other countries. We could win it back, and fast.
This industry holds so much promise. But to realize everything we have to gain, it is imperative for the Trump administration to prioritize drone integration efforts and keep it on an upward flight path.