In direct response to a Presidential Memorandum issued on October 25, 2017, the Department of Transportation (DOT), in consultation with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), announced details of a new pilot program designed to accelerate the safe integration of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) into national airspace (NAS). This new program, which focuses on developing and advancing new technologies, operational methods and regulatory models for the use of UAS in low altitude airspace, presents a broad spectrum of business and research opportunities for interested entities that are willing to act quickly!

Dubbed the UAS Integration Pilot Program, this initiative solicits proposals from states, localities and tribes interested in working together with the industry to test the integration of civil and public UAS operations into the national airspace within their respective jurisdictions. Subject to FAA approval, participants may be able to engage in advance operations that would presently require a special waiver from the FAA, including beyond line of sight operations and operations over uninvolved people.

Only state, local and tribal governments are eligible to be "Lead Participants" in the program but such entities are permitted to partner with one or more private sector stakeholder or other government agencies as part of their program. Eligible government entities considering participation in the program must submit a Notice of Intent by November 28, 2017, and selected jurisdictions will then have until January 4, 2018 to enter into partnership agreements with public and private participants and submit final applications to the Department of Transportation.

One of the principle objectives of the Pilot Program is to address ongoing security and safety risks associated with UAS operating in close proximity to humans and critical infrastructure by ensuring timely communications with Federal, State, local and tribal law enforcement. In addition, the collaborative process is intended to identify the most effective regulatory models for balancing local and national interests in UAS integration while still promoting innovation in the unmanned aviation industry.

Industry representatives, including AUVSI, a leading trade association in the UAS field, have lauded this pilot program as illustrative of "a new renaissance in aviation and technology" providing an opportunity for state, local, tribal officials and the UAS industry to join forces in the formation of a UAS policy framework.

The UAS Integration Pilot Program comes on the heels of recent proposed federal legislation that has heightened the discussion of the extent of the FAA's jurisdiction over the national airspace. In at least one instance, proposed bills before Congress contemplate that states should have jurisdiction over the airspace below 200 feet above ground. The Presidential Memorandum and resulting pilot program are therefore viewed as a bold move with the potential benefits of postponing legislative action (that could result in patchwork of state UAS laws) at least until this collaborative multi-governmental effort can explore a data-driven approach to possible frameworks for consideration in future FAA rulemaking.

In brief, the Pilot Program is looking for visionary participants that can demonstrate advances in technological capabilities, operational concepts and effective means of communications between the public and law enforcement agencies. Applications should include the following information:

  • Identification of the airspace to be used, including shape files and altitudes
  • A description of the types of planned operations
  • Identification of stakeholder partners to test and evaluate planned operations
  • Identification of available infrastructure to support planned operations
  • A description of experience with UAS operations and regulations
  • A description of existing UAS operator and any other stakeholder partnerships and experience
  • A description of plans to address safety, security, competition, privacy concerns and community outreach

The information gained through this Pilot Program will be used to enable the FAA: 1) to identify and resolve technical challenges to UAS integration; 2) to address airspace use to safely and efficiently integrate all aircraft into NAS; 3) to reduce the need for waivers (e.g., for operations over human beings, night operations, and beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS)); and 4) to address UAS operational safety, security and privacy issues as well as the competing roles and responsibilities of non-federal government entities.