Robotics

Drone Makers Hope Regulations Under Trump Will Set Their Swarms Free

Tethered by strict FAA rules, the drone industry hopes that a pro-business, anti-regulation president will let the fledgling technology soar.

There's a good reason why Amazon made its historic first drone delivery in Cambridge, England instead of Seattle, Washington. Sure, the British countryside is scenic, but the real reason Jeff Bezos unveiled Amazon Prime Air in the UK is that US regulators wouldn't let him test the futuristic delivery service at home.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) launched its first set of commercial drone regulations on August 29, 2016. Known as Part 107 of the FAA code, the rules require that drones have a human operator and they restrict flights beyond the operator's visual line of sight, at night and over people.

Current FAA regulations are a "game over" for drone-based delivery since companies like Amazon want to use fully autonomous drones that fly miles beyond the line of sight of any operator. The UK government has similar commercial drone restrictions in place, but signed a deal with Amazon to let the internet giant test its technology on a limited basis.

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Under President Barack Obama, the FAA and the Department of Transportation have been bullish on drones, recognizing the game-changing potential of unmanned aircraft (UAS) technology to impact dozens of industries - from journalism to agriculture to real estate - and create tens of thousands of American jobs. But the FAA's mandate is safety, not innovation, and drone industry is bristling under what it feels to be overly restrictive rules.

"We understand that the FAA's priority is safety, and there's a lot of things happening in the industry to work towards safety," said Gretchen West, co-executive director of the Commercial Drone Alliance, a drone industry advocacy group, "but they need to be a little more aggressive in allowing some of these operations so we can start realizing and utilizing the benefits of this technology."

There's hope among drone boosters that having Donald J. Trump in the White House - perhaps the most pro-business and anti-regulation president in history - will loosen the most restrictive regulations on commercial drones.

Representatives from the drone industry are meeting with Trump's transition team to lay out the industry's policy priorities, which include creating a "micro" category for lightweight drones that would be exempt from pilot certification, one of the more onerous requirements under FAA rules.

"Drones in the micro category are very small, low-weight, low-risk devices," said Kara Calvert of the Drone Manufacturers Alliance, arguing that licensing such harmless for commercial use is unnecessary. "We really think it shouldn't matter how you're going to use it, as long as you're operating within the set parameters. Don't fly at night, don't fly over people, don't fly over 500 feet, don't fly within five miles of an airport, don't fly where there are flight restrictions."

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Of course, the drone industry would love to see some of those "parameters" disappear, too. Under the current law, commercial drone operators like aerial photographers and oil field inspectors can apply for waivers to "break" one of the FAA rules, and more than 220 such waivers have been granted since August, mostly to fly drones at night.

But even waivers don't go far enough, industry sources say. Cable news channel CNN, for example, received the very first waiver in 2016 to use a drone news camera.

"CNN got permission, but their drone is very small, it's one pound, it's tethered, and there's a very narrow corridor of airspace that they can actually operate in," said West from the Commercial Drone Alliance, of which CNN is a member. "So their waiver doesn't really get them a whole lot, even though it's a step in the right direction."

What are the chances that Trump will force the FAA to set drones free? At this point, it's extremely difficult to tell. Trump has made no public statements (or tweets, even) about commercial drones, although Vice President-elect Mike Pence did sign off on a drone research and development center when he was governor of Indiana.

Incoming Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is a beltway veteran with a light hand for regulations, but no record on drones. And current FAA chief Michael Huerta, a strong if careful supporter of drones, hopes to stay on to finish his term under Trump.

Arthur Holland Michel, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, said that no matter how business-friendly the Trump administration may be, you can only push the regulatory process so quickly.

"I call it 'drone years,' like dog years," said Michel. "Things move so quickly in the world of drones that one calendar year feels like a really long time. The FAA has indicated that eventually we will get to a point where the drone use is totally open in US airspace and the industry can really grow to its full potential, but they are exercising caution."

Will Amazon customers in the United States ever be able to receive packages by drone? That one might have to wait for a post-Trump administration.

"The FAA is not even allowing companies that want to carry goods to apply for a waiver beyond visual line of sight, so the door is really kind of closed for delivery," said West.

At least the UPS guy is happy.

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