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What a Trump presidency means for the future of drone delivery in the U.S.

Privatizing air traffic control has implications for integrating drones into national airspace.

Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Albuquerque, NM Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Trump wants to privatize air traffic management, according to Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., who says the president-elect is in favor of replacing the current Federal Aviation Administration-run system with a private, nonprofit corporation.

Privatizing air traffic control will have implications for the future of U.S. drone regulations, much of which hinges on efforts to create a national drone air traffic control system capable of real-time reporting, tracking and managing of flights.

Since drones don’t take off and land from designated locations, the way airplanes do, drone pilots need to be able to track aircraft to avoid collisions and flying over restricted airspace. Right now, it’s legal to fly a drone in the U.S. within an operator’s line of sight, but for drone delivery to come to fruition, unmanned aircraft will need some kind of shared, nationwide flight tracking system.

NASA has been working with the FAA to test a new system with the goal of finalizing the project by 2019, but if Trump follows through with privatizing air traffic control, a solution for national drone tracking might be expedited.

The FAA has been slow in figuring out its drone policy. Amazon blasted the agency for dragging its feet, and the company ultimately moved their testing operations to the U.K. Companies like Amazon might favor privatized drone management if it means a faster rollout. Commercial drone rules were finalized this past August, almost a year after Congress requested.

There’s already a private company that dominates the drone mapping space, AirMap, whose tracking, mapping and geofencing software is used in about 80 percent of commercial and consumer drones worldwide, including drones from DJI, Intel, 3DR and others, as well as nearly every major airport in the U.S.

But AirMap’s technology is used on a screen next to the national air traffic control system. It’s not integrated, which is what the research project with the FAA and NASA aims to learn more about.

Since there’s no precedent for national drone traffic control systems, it’s hard to say what the concerns with a private solution would be. Both the U.K. and Canada manage their national air traffic control through private corporations, but Delta, one of the only major carriers opposed to air traffic management privatization, says costs have actually gone up in the U.K. and Canada since privatization. And the public system in the U.S. is the safest and busiest air traffic control management in the world.

Those who are in favor of air traffic control privatization, however — including the National Association of Air Traffic Controllers and most major airlines — say air traffic management is too important to be subject to the whims of possible government shutdowns or budgetary fights.

The Senate rejected a measure to privatize air traffic control earlier this year, after the importance of passing other provisions in the bill outweighed stretching the contentious debate any longer.

The current head of the FAA, Michael Huerta, will remain in his seat until 2018, but Trump plans to nominate Elaine Chao, who previously served as the secretary of labor under the Bush administration, to lead the Department of Transportation. She will be in charge of figuring out major aspects of federal drone policy, like the laws around safe operating.

Chao has expressed openness to privatizing aspects of federal programs. During her tenure at the Department of Labor, Chao was criticized for supporting the interests of industry over concerns raised by unions. Given Chao’s proclivity toward industry interests, she may be more open to privatizing an integrated air traffic control system and working with the drone industry’s timelines.

Trump plans to "invest $550 billion to ensure we can export our goods and move our people faster and safer,” according to his transition website. And some of those funds may very well include plans for infrastructure that would enable drone delivery.

The president-elect is also in favor of resuming law enforcement access to military equipment, which means that the domestic drone industry could see an uptick in government clients for both drones and drone-interference technology.

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