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A new Trump policy could let Amazon and Google test more drones in U.S. cities

The White House wants cities and towns to partner with drone makers on new pilot projects.

President Donald Trump is shown a quadcopter drone Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Amazon, Google and other tech giants could soon partner with U.S. cities and states to test more self-flying, package-delivering drones under a new policy put forward by President Donald Trump on Wednesday.

These and other experiments still must obtain the blessings of the federal government, but the new effort — to be officially unveiled by Trump at the White House — aims to speed up the arrival of more drones that can aid law enforcement, monitor crops, study traffic and more.

Under current rules, tech giants are allowed to operate commercial drones in the United States — but only under very specific circumstances. Their unmanned aircraft must be flown within a pilot’s line of sight, for example, and those pilots must obtain licenses. Commercial operators also are restricted to flying only during daylight hours. Their craft is limited in size, altitude and speed, and pilots are generally not allowed to fly drones over people.

Sometimes, companies can obtain waivers to those rules from the Federal Aviation Administration; CNN, for one, recently obtained limited permission to fly its drones over crowds for reporting purposes. Typically, though, the process takes years to complete, and the backlog of applications at the FAA is only growing in size.

To that end, Trump’s policy memo issued Wednesday aspires to streamline the process. Soon, city and state leaders will gain the ability to partner with a commercial drone operator — from Silicon Valley or elsewhere — on a pilot project, from delivering packages to monitoring oil pipelines. They would then petition the federal government to relax some of its existing commercial drone rules.

The hope is that the new system will spur the FAA to act more swiftly — and be more open minded — about drone experiments, one Trump administration official told Recode. That’s because a pilot project pitched with local government support might be more comprehensive in scope — tackling, for instance, local air-traffic concerns — than a company seeking a waiver on its own.

“The speed and volume of UAS deployment in the United States is unprecedented,” said Michael Kratsios, the president’s deputy chief technology officer, on a call with reporters Wednesday. “However, our aviation regulatory framework has not kept pace with this change.”

Lacking the right laws, drone makers like Amazon and Google have sought “commercial testing and deployment opportunities overseas,” Kratsios said. He added the Trump administration hopes to see initial drone pilot programs implemented within a year, which the FAA then plans to study to determine if they might work nationally.

In practice, it could usher in programs in which towns partner with Amazon or Google to test package delivery more aggressively in the United States. Amazon, for example, in March conducted its first public Prime Air delivery in the country.

It could also open more avenues for pilot-less, night-time commercial drone use in fields like emergency response and precision agriculture, according to the White House, which estimates a fivefold increase in such craft by 2021.

That said, there likely aren’t going to be package-delivery drones in major metropolitan areas like New York City any time soon. Nothing in Trump’s new rules prevent that outright, but the technology powering autonomous, self-flying craft perhaps isn’t ready for a bustling city of high-rises — and the FAA might not allow it, either.

Otherwise, the Trump administration and the FAA have released few details about their new policy. More are expected in the coming weeks. Still, tech and drone companies — Amazon, Google, Intel, PrecisionHawk and others — are sure to rejoice at the new regulatory relief. Some of those companies pressed Trump directly on drones during a meeting at the White House four months ago focused on easing regulations for nascent industries.

During a demonstration in the East Room, George Mathew, the leader of drone-maker Kespry, brought Trump one of its industrial craft as he sought to explain its industrial uses. PrecisionHawk CEO Michael Chasen even asked Trump to open U.S. skies for more drones so that “we can stay competitive with other countries.”

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