President Trump invited a number of key players from the drone industry to attend meetings at the White House to discuss looming regulatory questions and assess how the business of drones is poised to grow.
The Trump administration said it wanted to support the industry and was receptive to feedback about the need to create more flexible regulations and craft new rules more quickly so more drones can get to work, the executives said.
“The fact that the White House highlighted drones as a key technology that will be driving innovation in the future is amazing,” said Michael Chasen, CEO of PrecisionHawk, who was in attendance at today’s meeting. “But the drone industry is one of the few industries where we need more regulations, not less.”
While it’s legal to fly drones in the U.S., much of the commercial activity like delivering packages or inspecting hard-to-reach infrastructure without an operator present, is largely still not legal.
That’s because the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to craft rules that would allow drones to fly beyond the line of sight of the operator or fly at night without getting a special waiver.
“The waiver process as it stands could be streamlined and eventually automated,” said Jesse Stepler, the Chief Operating Officer of Measure, a company that operates one of the largest commercial drone fleets in the country. Stepler, who also attended today’s meeting, noted waivers can be automated even before drone rules are finalized, a sentiment that was echoed by multiple executives throughout the White House drone meeting today.
The FAA has been criticized for its slow pace and lack of flexibility when it comes to drafting drone policy. Amazon blasted the agency in 2015 for not granting a waiver fast enough for the online retailer to test its aircraft in the United States, causing the company ultimately to test its drone systems in the U.K. instead.
Another executive in attendance at the White House today, Greg McNeal, UAVUS Advisory Board Member and co-founder of AirMap, a company that makes mapping and alert software to manage drone flights, said that one of the main points discussed was how the FAA might adopt a more flexible, localized and risk-based approach to regulation.
“We asked why autonomous cars weighing 3,500 pounds can drive next to hundreds of pedestrians, but a three-pound drone can’t fly over people,” McNeal said. “The FAA follows a legacy approach to regulating aviation that requires everyone to ask for permission.”
Before convening with Trump, the drone company executives met with regulators from the FAA and the Department of Transportation in a closed session. Personnel from NASA were also in attendance. Deputy Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Rosen, who led a portion of the meeting, took copious notes during what many felt was a highly productive session, sources say.
Many predict the drone industry is poised to become a booming business, with the addressable global markets that drones could serve — like helping to automate construction and the inspection of miles of oil and gas pipelines — valued at more than $127 billion, according to data from PwC. In the first quarter of this year, drone sales in the U.S. more than doubled from the same time last year, analysts from the NPD group found.
President Trump also got some hands-on time with a drone made by Kespry, a mining, construction and insurance drone inspection company, whose CEO, George Mathew, was in attendance with one of Kespry’s customers.
Another topic discussed was security and drones. The Trump administration proposed legislation to address the issue last month. If passed, it would permit the federal government to hack, destroy, track or commandeer drones without prior consent to determine if the aircraft poses a security threat to areas that receive special government protection.
Executives also expressed concern that much of the innovation in drone technology is coming from the U.S., but due to the slow pace of regulation, much of the business is being conducted in other countries with more flexible regulations, like Japan, Australia and New Zealand.