Today, our country is on the verge of the most significant new development in aviation since the jet age—the introduction of unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, into our national airspace. As of May 4, 2018, there were nearly 1.1 million registered drones in the United States, and more than 90,000 registered drone pilots—a job category unheard of until a few years ago. This may come as a surprise to many who think of drones primarily as a military or recreational tool. But today, new commercial and humanitarian applications are being developed for this technology, which holds tremendous potential to save lives, speed up the delivery of goods and services and create new jobs.
That’s why on October 25, 2017, the president directed the U.S. Department of Transportation to launch an Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program to test the safe operation of drones in a variety of conditions that are currently prohibited. On May 9, 2018, the department announced that 10 projects from around the country had been selected from approximately 150 applications to be part of this exciting new pilot program. These 10 projects will allow local communities to test drones that fly over people, beyond line of sight of the operator and at night.
North Carolina’s Department of Transportation is on the front lines of this innovation. I’m proud to say that the Department of Transportation is partnering with NC DOT to prepare for the future by engaging with this new technology in a way that ensures safety without hampering innovation. The selected applications are as varied as the communities proposing them, including:
- Quicker and easier package delivery here in North Carolina;
- Helping the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma improve agriculture, public safety and infrastructure inspections;
- Suppressing mosquitos to fight the spread of the Zika virus in Florida;
- Emergency delivery of life saving medical equipment in rural and urban Nevada;
- Facilitating precision agricultural operations in Kansas;
- Inspecting pipeline in remote areas of Alaska to help safeguard the environment.
The pilot program is key to keeping drone testing in the United States, so American companies are not forced to develop this technology overseas. If we are to remain a global aviation leader, our country must create a path forward for the safe integration of drones into our national airspace. That’s essential because our system is bigger, faster, more technologically advanced, and more complex than most other nations combined.
The U.S. Departments of Transportation, Homeland Security, Justice, Defense and others have been working with industry, academia and innovators to resolve some of the obstacles holding drone technology back. Among these hurdles are concerns about safety, security and privacy. Advisory boards and listening sessions were created to get as much input as possible, and the department held conferences and seminars on drones to hear from a wide range of voices. And this is just the beginning. The data gathered from the UAS Integration Pilot Program will form the basis of a new regulatory framework to safely integrate drones into our national airspace.
And there’s more good news. Many of the applications not selected for the current pilot program are excellent proposals in their own right. They will still have an opportunity to proceed under current FAA rules, including with waivers as appropriate. I have asked the FAA to reach out to these other applicants in the coming weeks to discuss a path forward for their projects, as well.
Drones are a part of our aviation future, and I look forward to seeing the results in North Carolina. In addition to their strong commercial potential, last year’s hurricanes and wild fires have proven that drones have real potential to save lives and help first responders. The UAS Integration Pilot Program is an important step in preparing for this future. By developing the know-how to safely integrate drones into our airspace, our country can reap the safety and economic benefits of this technology and continue to remain a global aviation leader.