In front of an audience that included New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez and North Dakota Senator John Hoeven, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao last Thursday announced the Drone Integration Pilot Program. The program, which Chao called an “important milestone in aviation innovation,” quickens the process of giving private drone operators safe access to public airspace for a variety of applications.
Chao noted during her speech that until recently only the military flew drones, and only in combat. But she said today in the US there are more than 900,000 registered unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), which are used for many commercial and humanitarian purposes. This pilot program, she told the attendees, will allow the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to partner with private drone operators and local authorities in the experimentation of new technologies, such as package delivery. Moreover, the program will help ensure a safe airspace for everyone.
Chao went on to describe the role private drone operators played in the rescue efforts following this year’s hurricanes. She said that the FAA made more than 300 authorizations for drone use during the crisises. She also stated that a mature and safe drone industry could generate billions of dollars and create tens of thousands of jobs.
Both Chao and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta talked about how growth in the drone industry has been limited by current regulations, which restrict drone operations beyond line of sight in certain circumstances. Chao said that that data and best practices gleaned from the pilot program would be used in the crafting of new regulations that would change these restrictions.
At the end of her speech, Chao took special care to point out that the government must create an environment around new technologies that “ensures safety, security and privacy” while at same time fosters innovation and creativity. She said that this was especially true when it came to private drones and their integration into federal aviation systems. She further let it be known that doing this would be the greatest technical aviation challenge since the onset of the Jet Age, but one the government would take a leading role in solving.