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Trump’s plan to privatize air traffic control could expedite drone delivery in the U.S.

Finding a way to safely integrate drones in U.S. airspace is one of the main issues holding up drone delivery.

Donald Trump Spends The Weekend In Palm Beach Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

This morning, President Donald Trump announced plans to privatize the U.S. air traffic control system, a move that would take the responsibility away from the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that currently manages U.S. air traffic control.

Trump’s plan is the first in a week-long series of announcements expected from the White House this week on modernizing and investing in the nation’s roads, bridges, ports and other public infrastructure. The Trump administration is calling it “infrastructure week,” drawing on the president’s campaign promise to invest $1 trillion in renewing national infrastructure.

The proposal to privatize air traffic management comes as the FAA and NASA are studying how drones will fit safely into the national airspace. NASA has been working with the FAA to test and research 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 come even sooner.

Creating a way for drones to safely integrate into the national airspace is one of the biggest linchpins holding up the future of U.S. drone regulation and drone delivery more broadly, which has major implications for companies like Alphabet and Amazon, as well as traditional shipping companies like UPS that are readying for drone delivery.

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 avoid flying over restricted airspace.

Right now, it’s only 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 so drones can operate without someone following in plain view.

Trump’s air traffic control privatization plan will be discussed by the Senate on Wednesday. It takes the shape of a previous proposal from Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Penn., who chairs the House transportation committee, which would create a private nongovernmental corporation to manage air traffic control nationwide. That private corporation would be mostly made up of representatives from the major airlines and unions, though the FAA would maintain an oversight role.

The FAA spends nearly $10 billion a year on air traffic control, employs about 28,000 air traffic control staff and runs the safest and most complex air traffic control system in the world.

Last week, at a drone conference in North Dakota, Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao laid out plans for a pilot program to let local communities experiment with different approaches for controlling drone activity in their airspace.

Such a proposal could open the doors for private companies that build software to track drone flights to get government contracts to provide their services, instead of, say, the FAA building its own low-altitude air traffic control system.

That, combined with the potential to privatize national air traffic control in general, could mean that drone delivery might happen sooner in the U.S. than anticipated, since the regulatory timeline would be less reliant on FAA activity, though the agency still has to craft rules about flying over people, at night and beyond line of sight of an operator.

“The integration of drones into our national airspace will be the biggest technological challenge to aviation since the beginning of the Jet Age,” said Chao.

Both the U.K. and Canada manage their national air traffic control through private corporations, but Delta, one of the only major carriers that has opposed air traffic management privatization, says costs have actually gone up in the U.K. and Canada since privatization.

Those 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 FAA has been working to upgrade its air traffic control system for years, but Trump says it is taking too long, and the current system doesn’t work.

"The previous administration spent over $7 billion trying to upgrade the system and totally failed,” Trump said while announcing the Air Traffic Control Reform Initiative. “Honestly, they didn’t know what the hell they were doing — a total waste of money, $7 billion plus."

Watch President Trump’s press conference on privatizing U.S. air traffic control here:

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