On October 25, 2017, the White House issued its previously-rumored Presidential Memorandum (“Memorandum”) calling for the establishment of a UAS Integration Pilot Program (“Program”) to test the further integration of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (“UAS” or “drones”) into the national airspace system (“NAS”) in a select number of State, local and tribal jurisdictions. The Memorandum calls for the Secretary of Transportation (“Secretary”) to establish the Program by late January 2018, and to have entered into agreements with at least five State, local or tribal governments to participate in the Program by mid-2018. Under the terms of the Memorandum, the Program will terminate on October 25, 2020, unless extended by the Secretary.
The Memorandum acknowledges the work conducted to date by the Federal Aviation Administration to integrate drones into the NAS, but finds that input from State, local and tribal governments as well as private-sector stakeholders is necessary to “craft an optimal strategy for the national management of UAS operations” going forward. To that end, the Memorandum identifies as one if its primary objectives testing and evaluating “various models of State, local and tribal government involvement in the development and enforcement of Federal regulations for UAS operations.” The statement released by the President and the Secretary announcing the Memorandum indicates that the Program will be used to evaluate a number of operational concepts beyond what are currently permitted by 14 CFR Part 107, including operations at night, flights over people, flights beyond visual line of sight, and package delivery. The Program will also evaluate sense-and-avoid technology, counter-UAS operations, and the reliability and security of data links between the control station and the unmanned aircraft.
Conceptually, the Memorandum appears to be a welcome development for industry, as it focuses on two of the main issues inhibiting wider drone operations: 1) the lack of certainty in the regulatory environment arising from divergent State, local and Federal regulations; and, 2) the limited range of operations currently permitted under 14 CFR Part 107. As always, the devil is in the details, and it will be interesting to see how the Program develops and what results it produces. Regardless, whatever progress is to be made on these fronts cannot come soon enough for the industry.