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Drone Company Leaders Meet With Trump To Ask For More Clarity On Rules


Leaders of the drone industry got an audience at the White House this week. The drone executives met with President Trump to push for more clarity on rules governing their unmanned aerial vehicles. To talk about what happened and explain big issues in the growing drone industry, we're joined now by April Glaser. She writes about drones, robots and artificial intelligence for the tech news website, Recode. April, welcome.

APRIL GLASER: Thanks so much for having me.

BLOCK: And let's start with the players who were at this meeting. What do their companies do exactly?

GLASER: So these are drone services companies, largely. One of the companies is Kespry. They work on drones. They actually build drones. But they also work on providing drone services for construction companies and mining companies to help measure stockpiles and aggregates and things like that.

Another company that was there is PrecisionHawk. And PrecisionHawk makes software that analyzes data that's captured from drones for things like crop analysis and agriculture pipeline inspections. Airspace was another company that was there. And they actually make technology that tracks and takes down rogue drones that are flying over places that they're not supposed to like sports stadiums or jails.

BLOCK: And if you are one of these commercial drone companies, not a hobbyist, but one of these big companies, what is it that you want from the Trump administration?

GLASER: Well, you know, this meeting was called at a time of regulatory uncertainty for the drone industry, right? So with drones, unlike other industries that might want to do away with government regulations that companies perceive as burdensome, the drone industry actually needs more regulations in order to grow. And that's because while it's legal to fly drones in the U.S., a lot of the commercial activity that's - or the potential commercial activity like delivering packages or inspecting hard-to-reach infrastructure kind of without an operator present is still not legal. And that's because the Federal Aviation Administration is still crafting those rules that would allow drones to fly in certain ways.

So, like, right now it's not legal to fly beyond the line of sight of an operator. But, you know, in order for a drone delivery to happen, drones will have to be able to fly beyond the line of sight of the operator. That's the whole point of drone deliveries - that a person isn't there.

BLOCK: If you're a big U.S. investor looking at the drone industry, what are you thinking right now?

GLASER: Well, you're thinking that if you don't know what the rules are, then you're not going to have a lot of confidence to invest - right? - because if you don't know whether or not it's going to be legal, say, for a drone company that wants to do delivery to actually do that anytime soon, then why would you invest in that? And so it's really important for the U.S. to iron out these rules now so the money and the investment and a lot of the innovation stays in the country and doesn't actually decamp abroad.

BLOCK: And I suppose the flipside of that, the counter-argument would be there are lots of concerns about privacy, for one, but also safety for commercial aircraft, for airplanes.

GLASER: Right. And it's not like the FAA can just kind of like press a button here and just create new laws. First, there needs to be some kind of low altitude air traffic control system for drones - right? - that allows them to safely integrate into U.S. airspace because, you know, unlike an airplane that takes off and lands from the same place every time, drones take off and land, you know, from your front door or from the store that they are getting the goods from potentially. So until that is kind of ironed out, we're not going to see drone delivery, really, at scale in the United States.

BLOCK: There is, in this country, an existing registry for drones, right? How many drones are registered?

GLASER: Well, as far as we know, there are 820,000 people who are registered to fly drones in the United States. But as of last month, the federal court actually nixed the requirement for people who are flying for fun, people who are hobbyists to register their drone.

So if you're a commercial operator, yes, you still have to register with the FAA. But if you're just flying for fun, if you're just trying to take pictures of your family or of your cool hiking trip, then, no, you don't have to register your drone with the FAA anymore. That said, this 820,000 number is significant because the FAA only opened its drone registry at the end of 2015. So it hasn't been that much time, and we have hundreds of thousands of drones in the air.

BLOCK: That's April Glaser. She covers the drone industry among others for the tech news website, Recode. April, thanks so much.

GLASER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.