Editor’s Note: Michael Kratsios is deputy assistant to the president for technology policy at the White House. Prior to joining the White House, he was a principal at Thiel Capital, where he invested in and advised technology companies. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
From the Wright brothers to the space program, Americans have always been eager to embrace the future of aviation.
That future is increasingly unmanned. Unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, offer tremendous benefits to our economy and society. They promise to create countless American jobs within and around the aviation industry, transform the delivery of household goods, improve the safety of dangerous occupations and expand access to life-saving medical supplies.
The Trump administration is committed to advancing the technologies to further bring about that future.
As we have seen in our skies and on battlefields, this new technology can be exploited by malicious actors, presenting new risks to the safety of our airspace and the security of our nation.
To spur the safe integration of drones into our national airspace system and fuel a growing industry, we need approvals for commercial drone operations from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Likewise, we need the necessary statutory authority from Congress to safeguard the airspace from malicious actors and assure the safe movement of goods and services.
The Trump administration, working with Congress, is taking action to strike that balance.
Last October, President Donald J. Trump signed a presidential memorandum to increase testing of innovative drone operations in communities across the United States through a new pilot program. Over the following months, the FAA heard from more than 2,500 interested parties, ranging from Fortune 500 companies to small businesses, and more than 300 state, local and tribal governments indicating interest in taking part.
Ten partnerships among industry, academia, and state, local and tribal entities have since been selected by Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao, enabling the operation of drones in innovative ways for the benefit of the American people.
San Diego, California, for example, will pair drones with 5G test networks. Fort Myers, Florida, will use drones to eradicate pestilent mosquito populations. Reno, Nevada, will fly drones to deliver life-saving medical equipment in emergency situations. And Fairbanks, Alaska, will use drones to inspect pipelines.
These pilot programs will also provide the FAA with essential data to improve remote identification and tracking systems, drone traffic management and collision avoidance technologies – all necessary components for safe integration of drones into our national airspace.
As part of broadening the use of drones to benefit the American people, we must also mitigate the threats posed by potential malicious drone use. Unfortunately, we have already seen terrorist groups use drones as weapon delivery systems overseas. In the US, criminals have used drones to deliver narcotics across the southern border, drop contraband inside prisons, conduct illicit surveillance and interfere with law enforcement operations.
On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs is holding a hearing on how we can counter malicious drone use in the homeland. Senior administration officials will discuss how the limits on the federal government’s authority to detect and defeat drone-based threats are putting the American people at risk.
This is not a new issue. Over the past several years, Congress recognized the importance and urgency of these concerns by authorizing limited counter-drone activities by the Departments of Defense and Energy. Nevertheless, the vast majority of federal departments and agencies – including federal law enforcement – still do not have the legal authority necessary to mitigate the threats drones can pose to the national airspace, critical infrastructure and the safety of the American people.
For that reason, the Trump administration submitted a legislative proposal to Congress in March to close this critical gap and enable the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to protect certain sensitive facilities and assets from this growing domestic threat, while enabling further economic development of the commercial drone industry and preserving our civil liberties.
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The future of our domestic drone industry is an exciting one. As drone integration pilot projects begin operations across the country in the coming months, we will see novel uses of this technology to help local communities and to improve the quality of American lives.
The economic impact of the integration of drones into United States airspace is estimated to reach tens of billions of dollars. Providing the necessary legal authority to counter potential threats from drones will ensure that the United States benefits from this rapidly developing sector of the economy.
Realizing these potential benefits compels us to authorize safe, innovative drone operations. Responding to their potential risks should compel Congress to authorize our government to protect the American public. In both cases, the Trump administration will work to ensure the United States is the global leader in bringing the benefits of this emerging technology to our people.