United States: Presidential Memorandum Launches New Pilot Program To Test Drone Operations

Philip Baker-Shenk is a partner and Jennifer M Nowak is an associate in Holland & Knight's Washington D.C. office

HIGHLIGHTS:

  • The White House has issued a Presidential Memorandum directing the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to launch a three-year Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program.
  • The Memorandum directs DOT and FAA to act within existing authorities to authorize state, local and tribal government applicants to establish drone test sites within their respective jurisdictions so that test site operations can be up and running within 12 months.
  • A major goal of the program is to establish a regulatory framework that encourages innovation and is created with direct input from state, local and tribal governments.

The White House issued a Presidential Memorandum on Oct. 25, 2017, directing the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to launch a three-year Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program, which the FAA states is designed to "safely test and validate advanced operations for drones in partnership" with what the Memorandum called "a select number of State, local and tribal jurisdictions."

During a White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) briefing call held on Oct. 25, OSTP indicated that President Donald Trump was directing DOT and FAA to act within existing authorities to authorize state, local and tribal government applicants to establish test sites within their respective jurisdictions so that UAS test site operations can be up and running within 12 months. OSTP indicated there will be no cap on the total number of potential test sites.

OSTP also indicated that participating jurisdictions will be able to obtain waivers of existing operational restrictions (e.g., line of sight) for industry research purposes, and that research on a broad range of UAS technologies and applications will be encouraged (e.g., technologies such as UAS Tracking Management, drone detection and tracking, and applications such as package delivery, inspecting crops and infrastructure, and search and rescue operations).

Key Highlights

Details are not yet available regarding the process by which DOT/FAA will "solicit proposals from State, local, and tribal governments to test within their jurisdictions the integration of civil and public UAS operations into the national air space." But the Memorandum outlines an aggressive implementation schedule:

  • within the next 90 days, DOT/FAA is tasked with establishing the pilot program
  • within 180 days of the establishment of the pilot program, DOT/FAA is expected to enter into agreements with at least five state, local or tribal governments
  • within 90 days from entering into an agreement with DOT/FAA, those governmental entities are expected to launch their programs

The Memorandum directs DOT/FAA to consider the following when choosing test sites:

  • overall economic, geographic, and climatic diversity of the selected jurisdictions
  • overall diversity of the proposed models of government involvement
  • overall diversity of the UAS operations to be conducted
  • the location of critical infrastructure
  • the involvement of commercial entities in the proposal and their ability to advance objectives that may serve the public interest as a result of further integration of UAS into the national airspace system
  • the involvement of affected communities in, and their support for, participating in the program
  • the commitment of the governments and UAS operators involved in the proposal to comply with requirements related to national defense, homeland security and public safety, and to address competition, privacy and civil liberties concerns
  • the commitment of the governments and UAS operators involved in the proposal to achieve the following policy objectives:
    • promoting innovation and economic development
    • enhancing transportation safety
    • enhancing workplace safety
    • improving emergency response and search and rescue functions
    • using radio spectrum efficiently and competitively

Establishing a Regulatory Framework

Although the FAA for the most part has previously declined to weigh in on state, tribal and local regulation of UAS operations, a major goal of the program is to establish a regulatory framework that encourages innovation and is created with direct input from state, local and tribal governments. OSTP indicated this will give these governments a voice and transform their jurisdictions into innovation zones.

Information collected during the program also will be analyzed and used to inform the development of the UAS Traffic Management System under Section 2208 of the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016 (Public Law 114-190).

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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