The Trump Administration said Wednesday that unspecified local and state agencies as well as tribal authorities would help the federal government to create a set of drone regulations for commercial flights.
The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversee drones in the national airspace, released rules in Aug. 2016 for how businesses can use drones for tasks like aerial photography or to monitor farms. However, many states and local governments have enacted their own drone rules that in many cases conflict with current FAA regulations.
Although the FAA has approved some companies to use drones to photograph property damage, for example, doing so could potentially violate local privacy laws if drones take pictures of nearby homes without their owners’ consent.
This mishmash of local and federal drone rules in addition to the hurdles to businesses of obtaining FAA approval for commercial drone flights has caused some companies like Amazon (AMZN) and Google (GOOG) to move their test flights to countries like United Kingdom and Australia where laws are more lax.
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The Trump Administration’s drone program is intended to make it easier for companies to test drones by having local authorities, tribal governments, companies, and the federal government work together. It’s also designed to give businesses more flexibility to fly drones at night, beyond the sight of human operators, and over people’s heads—things that are currently banned without approval but important to making drone deliveries a reality.
“Overall this is a hugely important step forward,” said attorney Lisa Ellman, who helps run the drone advocacy group Commercial Drone Alliance. “The intent is to open up the skies to commercial drones. It will help us gather data to inform future rule making.”
Still, the Trump Administration revealed limited details about how the new drone program, planned for the next three years, would work. For example, the administration said in a statement, “Prospective local government participants should partner with the private sector to develop pilot proposals,” but it did not say how those partnerships would function.
The DOT said it would evaluate at least five applications in which local authorities and companies will jointly propose plans for potential drone projects in certain municipalities. But, the DOT did reveal how it is determining the appropriate projects or its criteria for how it is selecting participants, likely to be many considering it will include numerous local governments as well as companies with competing interests.
The department also did not say how much the federal program would cost, but it added that the cost would be revealed in the coming days.
Nevertheless, several organizations and companies that are interested in drones are pleased about the Trump Administration’s initiative.
“The beauty of this program is that the White House is allowing everyone from cities to states to tribal authorities to apply,” Greg McNeal, co-founder of drone startup AirMap told Fortune in an email. “States and cities will apply to open the airspace for operations that they’re most interested in, that are the best fit for local conditions and complexities, and that allow them to welcome drone operations that can kickstart their drone economy.”
Drone advocacy group Small UAV Coalition, which represents companies like Google’s parent, Alphabet, and Amazon, also commended the program.
“As the pilot program gets underway, the Coalition looks forward to continuing to work with Congress, the FAA, and all stakeholders to advance long-term FAA reauthorization legislation that will help ensure that the United States fully embraces the immense economic potential and consumer benefits of UAS [drones] technology in the near-term,” the group said in a statement.
But just because the new drone program debuted, doesn’t mean that local authorities, the federal government, and corporate interests won’t butt heads. States are still free to enact their own drone law regardless of Trump’s proposal.
Supporters of Trump’s plan like the Small UAV Coalition, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, and the Academy of Model Aeronautics praised how the new drone program still designates the FAA as the ultimate authority over drones, trumping local governments. One reason these groups like this is because local laws often impede corporate interests especially surrounding privacy laws, thus limiting the ability of companies to launch commercial drone projects.
“We are encouraged that this new program appears to preserve the FAA’s authority over the nation’s airspace,” said Academy of Model Aeronautics spokesperson Chad Budreau.
About why it’s taken so long for such a framework to be developed, Ellman explained that’s just the way Washington D.C. politics works.
“I think when you’re dealing with any major federal government policy, there’s just a lot of ‘I’s’ to be dotted and ‘T’s’ to be crossed,” Ellman said.