President Trump found himself in the good graces of drone company executives following a meeting at the White House last month, during which he embraced drones as a key technology that will drive innovation.
But while Trump’s support for the technology earned the president praise, his administration is now faced with reckoning Trump’s own focus on deregulation with the drone industry’s belief that for now, a little regulation could go a long way.
“This is actually one industry where we need a little more regulation,” Michael Chasen, CEO of PrecisionHawk, said during the White House meeting. “The default is actually limiting what drone technology can do, and we need the FAA and other regulatory bodies to have a little more power in opening up those opportunities.”
Over the past few years, the Federal Aviation Administration has been slow to move on drone policy, specifically as it pertains to commercial drone use. The pace has frustrated technology companies such as Amazon, which have moved drone testing abroad because of current regulations.
And because drones in the U.S. are restricted in where and when they can fly — only during daytime and not above people, for example — the drone industry is limited in the technology’s new uses.
But new rules from the federal government could change that and open up the market, experts say.
The most significant action from the FAA came last year, when the agency issued its regulatory framework related to commercial use of drones.
The rules were highly anticipated, but experts say there are still limitations impeding the industry’s ability to pursue new uses for drones, such as drone delivery. For example, drones currently can’t fly over people, fly at night, or fly out of the operator’s line of sight.
But industry experts believe legalizing these flight scenarios could have positive economic impacts.
“Allowing regulations for our industry encourages economic growth in the U.S.,” Gretchen West, co-executive director of the Commercial Drone Alliance, told the Washington Examiner. “We don’t want or need to be heavily regulated, but we are standing and waiting on special rules to enable operation.”
For Jason Snead, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, the FAA’s approach to drone policy is a question of quantity versus quality of the rules surrounding drones.
“The FAA has taken a precautionary rulemaking approach by saying, ‘We’re trying to regulate the risk out of innovation. We’re only going to allow technologies that are deemed safe to enter the market,'” Snead told the Washington Examiner of the current regulatory framework. “It’s not a pro-innovative stance at all. It hinders development. That’s why we see Amazon and Google taking their technology overseas when they’re trying to test their technology. That’s why DJI is dominating the market because these rules are holding back American industry.”
Despite the slow pace of action from the federal agencies, the legislative wheels are beginning to turn.
Bills reauthorizing the FAA in the House and Senate address further integration of drones into the national airspace.
Additionally, two bipartisan bills, the House’s Drone Innovation Act from Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Minn., and the Senate’s Drone Federalism Act from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., look to state, local and tribal governments to regulate drone use below 200 feet.
“We’re fast approaching, if we’re not here already, this brave new world of drones,” Lewis told the Washington Examiner. “And everybody, farmers are using them, and wholesalers are using them, and all sorts of places want them above and beyond just national security concerns of national defense issues.”
“The question is how are we going to innovate or stimulate this new development while at the same time making it cohesive, making it coexist with interstate commerce and the rights to privacy at the local level,” Lewis said.
Lewis’ bill would require the secretary of transportation to work with state, local and tribal officials to establish a policy framework that guides drone operations.
That framework would allow state and local governments to set time, place and manner restrictions on drones, but prohibits a town or jurisdiction from banning drone activity outright.
“I’m a 10th Amendment guy, and I believe that’s the best way to do it,” he said. “After all, it’s just a matter of being pragmatic as well. If you’ve got a neighbor who’s buzzing your Sunday morning picnic, are you going to call the FAA and wait for a federal bureaucrat to come out? No, you call the city zoning board.”
Snead says he’s pleased lawmakers have “become aware of the federalism angle” of the drone debate, which has largely been missing.
“As has been the case since the birth of the country, when something is taking place in local communities, they should have a say in how it affects them and how they interact with them,” he said.
“This isn’t going to be an issue that is going to be handled solely by Washington regulators and Washington bureaucrats,” he continued. “We’re approaching a critical mass here where people are starting to realize this isn’t something we should leave to Washington.”
But the industry isn’t warm to the idea of allowing state, local and tribal governments to set restrictions on drone use below 200 feet.
Last month, 13 industry groups, including the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and the Commercial Drone Alliance, sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to wait for recommendations from the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee before acting on legislation that would define state and local governments’ roles in regulating drones.
“With all the confusion of whose authority it is up to this space and having to report to this property owner, it makes it difficult for commercial operations,” West, who signed the letter, said. “I think the Drone Advisory Committee may come up with a more reasonable resolution, but we should wait and see the outcome of that work before jumping to legislation.”
But Lewis says waiting isn’t an option anymore.
“How long are we going to wait?” he said. “We’ve been waiting too long. It’s time to move now.”