The Department of Transportation (DOT), in consultation with the Federal Aviation Administration, has announced details of the UAS Integration Pilot Program, a new program focused on developing and advancing new technologies, operational methods and regulatory models for the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in low altitude airspace. The program solicits proposals from states, localities and tribes interested in working together with the public and private sector entities to test the integration of civil and public UAS operations into the national airspace within their respective jurisdictions.

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.

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 to address competing interests regarding UAS operational expansion, safety, security, and privacy. The program actually slows down the pace of UAS-related litigation at both the state and federal level by allowing local, state and federal authorities an opportunity to work together on a comprehensive regulatory scheme instead of passing laws piecemeal. In 2017 alone, 38 states passed UAS-related legislation and in that same year Congress introduced at least eight federal bills relating UAS.

Among the federal bills introduced in 2017, certain noteworthy issues stand out: privacy, safety and the respective powers of state and local governments. Some bills attempt to achieve these goals through radical methods. For example, the proposed Drone Federalism Act of 2017 (115 S. 1272, 2017 S. 1272, 115 S. 1272) would address landowner privacy and safety concerns by limiting the FAA's regulatory authority and setting a 200’ above ground level ban on unauthorized flights over private property. This bill is not law and would likely face court challenges if it were to pass. Another somewhat radical proposal comes in the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act (115 H.R. 2997, 2017 H.R. 2997, 115 H.R. 2997), a bill that proposes to transfer operation of air traffic services currently provided by the Federal Aviation Administration to a separate not-for-profit corporate entity, presumably to increase safety.

Other proposed federal legislation appears more in line with the existing regulatory framework and the new aspects of the UAS Integration Pilot Program. For example, the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2017 (115 S. 1405, 2017 S. 1405, 115 S. 1405) includes a privacy-related provision that would require a written privacy policy available to the public regarding the collection, use, retention, dissemination, and deletion of any data collected during the operation of an unmanned aircraft system. The UAS Integration Pilot Program has adopted a similar provision. The program may allow states interested in passing privacy or data collection laws to work with the FAA on a comprehensive legal framework.