Yesterday, the Department of Transportation (“DOT”) published details of the new Unmanned Aircraft System (“UAS” or “drone”) Integration Pilot Program (“Program”) in the Federal Register. The White Office of Science and Technology Policy launched this Program to  encourage State, local, and tribal governments to collaborate with private industry on innovative UAS operations.  The Program is the most significant change in UAS regulation by the Trump Administration and could lead to unprecedented opportunities for companies to test drone applications that were previously restricted.  

But time is of the essence—communities and companies must move quickly to avail themselves of the new UAS opportunities. We encourage any interested parties to begin developing a plan and submit a Notice of Intent with the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) in the coming weeks. Details of the Program are explained below and are available in the Federal Register Notice.

The Program and Its Purpose

The  Program is an opportunity for state, local, and tribal governments to partner with private sector entities, such as UAS operators or manufacturers, to accelerate safe UAS integration into the National Airspace System (“NAS”). As Deputy Administrator of the FAA Daniel Elwell mentioned, UAS “Integration is a national imperative.”

According to the DOT, the Program is expected to provide immediate opportunities for new and expanded commercial UAS operations, foster a meaningful dialogue on the balance between local and national interests related to UAS integration, and provide actionable information to the DOT. The DOT intends to use the data from the Program to inform future rulemakings regarding UAS operations.

At the launch event for the Program in Washington, D.C. last week, high-ranking officials from the DOT and the FAA discussed numerous innovative applications that could benefit from the program, including: drone package delivery; operations over non-participants in the operation; and operations beyond visual line of sight (“BVLOS”) of the operator. Earl Lawrence, Director of FAA’s UAS Integration Office, encouraged creativity from applicants, saying: “We’re hoping you will surprise us!”

The FAA and the DOT made it clear that the program’s purpose is to expand drone operations and informed potential applicants that it will not consider applications wishing to establish blanket drone restrictions. However, the FAA is still going to enforce its safety mandate.  Before approving complex UAS operations, applicants will need to convince the FAA that the operations can be undertaken safely and securely, similar to the approval process for a Part 107 waiver or a Section 333 exemption.

Application Procedures for Governments and the Private Sector

The DOT encourages those wishing to take advantage of the Program to form public private partnerships and to submit proposals cooperatively, as a team. The structure of the Program involves a team, consisting of the lead applicant and interested parties.  Lead applicants must be state, local, or tribal government entities. They will serve as the primary point of contact with the FAA. Interested parties can be prospective private sector companies or organizations, UAS operators, other stakeholders, or state/local/tribal government entities, including those that are designated Lead applicants and those that are not.

Timeframe for Applications

Lead applicants must file a Notice of Intent with the FAA by November 28, 2017. This notice is required to be eligible for the Program, however the submission of a notice does not require the lead applicant to file an application, if it can not locate a suitable partner.  Interested parties who would like to be eligible for the program and to be listed in the FAA’s contracting website as potential public private partners must file a Notice of Intent with the FAA by December 13, 2017.  Both lead applicants and interested parties may begin to file notices immediately.

As public private partnerships are developed and ideas for projects begin, lead applicants must file the first two parts of the application by December 13, 2017. Completed applications are due by January 4, 2018.

Contents of Applications

An application will provide the FAA and DOT with as much information as possible about the proposed project. For example, the FAA suggests the inclusion of the following information: the airspace to be used, including shape files and altitudes; description of the types of planned operations; identification of partners to test; infrastructure to support planned operations; the relevant experience of the team with UAS operations and regulations; and description of plans to address safety, security, competition, privacy concerns and community outreach.

Criteria for Selection

The DOT and FAA will review the applications and select at least five localities to take part in the Program, based on various criteria, including: involvement of commercial entities in the proposal to advance objectives serving a public interest; community support; diversity of UAS operations to be undertaken; economic, geographic, and climatic diversity of selected jurisdictions; diversity of levels of government involvement; location of critical infrastructure; and safety. At the DOT’s discretion, a second round of applications may occur.

With 900,000 UAS registered in the FAA database, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao announced that the safe integration of drones into the NAS is the “Biggest challenge to aviation since the advent of jet technology.” The DOT believes this program is an important step towards that universal integration of drones in the coming years.