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Drone Focus Conference

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
Drone Focus Conference
Fargo, North Dakota
Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Thank you, Sen. Hoeven, for that gracious introduction, and for inviting me to the second annual Drone Focus conference—an invitation I was delighted to accept.  I am so glad to be in your state after hearing so much about it from you and Mikey [Mrs. Mical Hoeven]!  My husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and I treasure our friendship with you and Mikey.

Let me also recognize Governor Burgum, who is here today as well.  And let me note that today is also the very first National Autonomous Vehicles Day.

North Dakota has been building its drone friendly reputation for some time.  In 2013 the Grand Forks Airbase became a drones-only facility.  Drone pilots stationed at the base have flown reconnaissance missions around the world, as well as border patrol missions along the US-Canadian and, at times, the US-Mexican border.

The base is also home to GrandSky, which uses the uncluttered skies of North Dakota to conduct Beyond Visual Line of Sight tests of larger unmanned aerial vehicles.

The Center for UAS Research at the University of North Dakota is also making a name for itself in this fast-paced industry.  The Department is working with the University of North Dakota, and many other state and local partners, to develop a sound strategy that will help the emerging UAS industry grow and innovate, while maintaining the safety and security the public deserves.

As you may know, this Administration recently announced its FY 2018 budget, which includes a proposal to begin a multi-year effort to modernize our country’s air traffic control system.  Currently, the aviation industry is experiencing a rapid evolution of technology and a significant increase of volume at the same time. More people than ever before are traveling by air, making the airspace more complex and congested every day.

By 2020, it is estimated that our airspace will have to support one billion passengers each year.  And air freight is expected to more than double over the next three decades. Without change, our current system will not be able to keep pace with those numbers.  Already, congestion is taking its toll on the current system.  It takes 20 percent more time to fly between certain cities today than it did 25 years ago. Our National Air space System must be able to accommodate these growing demands, or run the risk of falling behind the rest of the world in terms of efficiency and safety.

This Administration’s proposal would separate the operation of our country’s air traffic control system from the safety oversight functions of the FAA.  Air traffic control operations would be split off as an independent, non-profit cooperative, while the FAA and its safety oversight functions would remain at the Department of Transportation.  A key goal is to increase the capacity of our national airspace with the latest technology, so it can accommodate the expected increase in traffic as well as new entrants like drones.

Smart new transportation technology needs smart infrastructure.  And we need the smartest infrastructure possible to allow manned and unmanned aircraft and vehicles to safely share airspace and roads.  The line between aerospace and terrestrial transportation technology is beginning to blur. So it makes sense to ensure that our infrastructure can accommodate these developments. This means an appropriate regulatory framework that can keep pace with rapidly changing technology.

That is why the Administration is working collaboratively to resolve some of the unique policy and legal issues involved in safely integrating drones into our airspace.

A key issue in regulating drones is security.  How can we defend these systems from hackers?  And what can be done to thwart terrorist attempts to use this technology? 

Law enforcement and security authorities need to be able to determine whether drones are operating legally.  But how much information is needed? And how can agencies get the information they need without violating the rights of the drone operator?  And how should authorities mitigate a drone threat without putting people or property on the ground in jeopardy?

These are difficult technical and legal issues.  

There is also the question of airspace.  Legally, the FAA has regulatory primacy over all U.S. airspace.  How do we manage the issue of drones flown at low-altitudes, far from airports or federal facilities?  How much authority should local municipalities or county governments have over drone operations?  And what about drones operating beyond the operator’s line of sight?  The Department has launched an initiative to start answering these questions about airspace.

Recently, the FAA published more than 130 UAS facility maps to help streamline authorizations in the airspace around some of our busiest airports. These maps will help the industry and the FAA work together to streamline what has been a labor intensive and sometimes frustrating process. The maps help drone operators improve the quality of the information they submit to the FAA, and help the FAA to process airspace requests more quickly. 

Now, to be clear, the maps are informational. They do not give permission to fly drones. Operators, will still need to submit an online airspace authorization application. But the maps are an important step in making it easier and more routine to conduct “over the horizon” or “beyond line of sight” UAS operations.

More maps will be released in the coming months to support the development of a low-altitude authorization system. Working with private sector companies, the FAA is developing requirements to exchange data with third parties that will enable real-time authorization for drone operations in controlled airspace. This collaboration is laying the foundation for a future UAS traffic management system that relies on cooperative interaction between drone operators. 

The FAA is also crafting a pilot program designed to let local communities try different regulatory concepts for controlling drone activity. This will generate data and best practices that the Department can use to help ensure the safety of people and property on the ground and in the air.

For example, the FAA is working with a consortium of leading UAS research institutions, as well as industry and government partners, on a series of studies that will help inform the parameters for safe drone flights over people.

Safety and security are Department priorities, so the FAA is also studying technologies that can be used for drone detection around airports.  And the FAA recently hosted an Unmanned Aircraft Security roundtable to discuss challenges and solutions regarding this technology with key stakeholders. Communication and collaboration among all stakeholders is extremely important in addressing legitimate security and safety concerns.  That’s why the FAA has also established the Drone Advisory Committee, which is helping to identify solutions to advancing UAS integration. 

The FAA has also formed a new Aviation Rulemaking Committee, which will convene this summer to recommend technologies for remotely identifying and tracking unmanned aircraft during operations. The recommendations produced will help pave the way for increasingly complex drone flights, such as those over people and beyond visual line of sight operations. 

Please contact Michael Britt, my Senior Advisor for ATO Modernization, for more information on the expansion of UAS operations in the National Airspace System.  We invite your input and feedback.   You may also contact Earl Lawrence, the Director of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office, or email

Finally, let me note that emerging technology requires a regulatory approach that ensures safety, while encouraging innovation and preserving creativity.  This last point is especially important.  Creativity and innovation are part of the great genius of America—one of its hallmarks.  We must safeguard and nurture this legacy.  But it is also critical that Silicon Valley and other innovators step up and share with the public their understanding of new technology, and address legitimate public concerns about safety and privacy.

The integration of drones into our national airspace will be the biggest technological challenge to aviation since the beginning of the Jet Age.  Drones are already used by our military, by law enforcement to patrol our borders or conduct searches and in photography, film making, precision agriculture surveying, precision agriculture for crop dusting, new media gathering, infrastructure inspections and much more.

Our job is to prepare the way for this new technology, so it can be deployed safely and usher in a new era aviation service, accessibility and ingenuity.

So thank you for inviting me here today. And thank you for everything you are doing to help enable this exciting new technology.