U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao took pen in hand today to publish an Op-Ed for The Hill, explaining the benefits of drone technology and touting the administration’s new UAS Integration Pilot Program.
After describing many of the benefits of drone technology, Chao went on to emphasize a point made by FAA Administrator Huerta in earlier speeches: that recent natural disasters, and the drone response, were a significant turning point for the use of drones in the U.S.
“This became abundantly clear in the aftermath of the hurricanes that devastated Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands,” writes Chao. “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) worked overtime to process more than 300 authorizations for drone use in the search, rescue, and recovery efforts in the aftermath of the storms.”
“‘Drone crews’ were deployed by communications and utility companies to rapidly and safely assess damage to cell phone towers, power transmission lines, pipelines, roads, and railways. Insurance adjusters discovered that drones allow for more efficient and safe property inspections, especially in flooded areas. Drones let them check roofs without climbing ladders, and make surveys faster and less expensive. ”
Chao goes on to state that federal regulations need to move faster in order to allow the U.S. to retain a leadership position in the industry, and acknowledged that current regulations were inadequate. While it’s a sentiment that seems obvious to the drone industry – the head of Intel testified over 2 years ago that regulations could force major companies oversees – its not one that has previously been echoed from the top of the administration in such a public way.
“Unfortunately, because our current regulatory environment is perceived as overly restrictive, much drone innovation is happening overseas — in Japan, Australia, and Great Britain,” Chao writes. “This could shortchange America’s economy and workers. Utilizing drones in our nation’s airspace could add $80 billion to our economy and create 100,000 jobs in the next decade, according to a recent report by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.”
“All this is about to change,” says the piece, describing the UAS Integration Pilot Program. “…American ingenuity and innovation are two of our country’s greatest strengths,” writes Chao. “This pilot program will help ensure that Americans reap the benefits of safe drone technology, and that our country retains its place as an aviation pioneer and technology leader.”
Both state and local governments and drone industry leaders have praised the program as a step forward towards drone integration. However, the pilot program is scheduled to last for 3 years and will not result in regulation: the program’s goals are to provide data to regulators. As some industry experts caution, the details of implementation will make a significant difference in the program’s outcome.