New federal program could usher in the future of drone policy

A first-of-its-kind federal drone program was recently launched to evaluate innovative uses for unmanned aircrafts, and the use of drones to help aid recovery efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence showed why this was such a critical first step. But for the program to live up to its promise of bringing drone policies into the 21st century, Congress must do its part by keeping a close eye on pilot projects in states like Kansas and California and crafting rules that promote innovation and protect public safety.   


In the past few years, the advancement of drone technology has outpaced the government’s attempts to oversee the emerging industry and its vast potential. As a result, there is a regulatory gap that the Department of Transportation’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems’ Integration Pilot Program (IPP) has the potential to fill.

IPP includes 10 participating state, local and tribal governments that will coordinate with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and private manufacturers to experiment using drones in new functions. Through the IPP partnerships, federal agencies and local governments will develop a clearer picture of how drone technology can provide new public benefits while being deployed safely and effectively.

Kansas, which was one of the 10 localities selected to participate in IPP, is hitting the ground running. Last month, the state launched the first IPP flights. Pilots from Kansas State University Polytechnic used special waivers from the FAA to fly drones farther and higher than had been previously allowed. But that’s just the beginning: State agencies and private manufacturers are already coordinating to develop drone use in infrastructure inspections and precision agriculture, like scientifically synchronizing irrigation to optimize water consumption.

California is another state on the cutting edge of integrating drones into local operations. San Diego’s city government was another IPP winner and is already testing how drones can help emergency services reach victims faster. Even before the IPP award, California’s state agencies began deploying drones to collect data and monitor wildfires that all too often create massive destruction statewide. Drone-collected data helps protect firefighters, evacuate residents and extinguish blazes sooner.

The ability of drones to play a pivotal role in the aftermath of natural disasters was on full display last week, when 53 drone teams were deployed throughout North Carolina and the Southeast in the wake of Hurricane Florence. The drones enabled utility providers to assess and even repair damage in areas that would have otherwise been impossible to access because of heavy flooding.     
That is why the IPP initiative, which promises to help drive advancements in drone technology and the smart policies that can more broadly support its use, is exactly what is needed. More experimentation, more data and more functionality is a win for all stakeholders involved and can be a solid foundation for federal agencies to tackle the many challenges involved in safely integrating autonomous aircraft into the national airspace.

The fact is that drones are increasingly becoming a mainstream technology for governments and businesses to solve key problems. While much has been made of their potential to revolutionize commerce through quick and efficient package delivery, drones are ready to be used in hurricane response or in life-saving aspects of medical care. The lesson is clear: Technology once regarded as futuristic is here, and it’s allowing local governments and private industry to think big. Now, policymakers must find a way to promote further innovation while ensuring these technologies are safely and responsibly implemented.

The DOT’s IPP program is a welcome start. The IPP partnerships and the new functionalities being implemented in states like Kansas and California are already proving that what was once science fiction can now be a safe and productive aspect of good governance. It is critical that Congress follows the DOT’s lead by paying close attention to the IPP program and working to bring outdated federal policies in line with the new and exciting reality of drone technology.