Well, the election is over. Let’s talk policy. Soon enough, Mr. Trump’s policy priorities are going to begin taking shape. Hitherto, the President-elect has not articulated a comprehensive platform for technology and innovation issues. Here at the Niskanen Center, however, we’ve been putting a lot of thought into what priorities the new Administration and Congress should focus on tackling in the new year.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing those technology and innovation priority issues for the 115th Congress in a series of blog posts—issues ranging from artificial intelligence, robotics, and automation to intellectual property and copyright reform. This week’s post is dedicated to outlining potential reforms for airspace and exospace (that is, space “proper”) that can help free the skies for innovation.

Lifting the Ban on Supersonic Flight

In an excellent op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, the Niskanen Center’s Sam Hammond and the Mercatus Center’s Eli Dourado sketched out the rough contours of a proposal to lift the ban on commercial supersonic flight over the United States. A few weeks ago, they fleshed out those rough contours into more solid policy recommendations in a joint-paper (“Make America Boom Again”). Additionally, Sam has recently thrown together a myths-and-facts website, detailing some of the common misconceptions and misplaced concerns associated with supersonic travel.

If we want to surmount stagnation in air travel speeds, a number of things need to happen in order to make way for a renaissance in civil supersonic flight: (1) the FAA needs to prioritize repealing the current ban and setting certification standards; (2) noise standards—a key component of ensuring regulatory certainty for would-be innovators and the emerging civil supersonic industry—should be set at reasonable levels that take account of existing socially-permissible standards; and (3) U.S. regulators should take the lead on setting rules, not waiting for internationally agreed upon standards. It’s far better to deal with inconsistencies in international rules and standards after incentivizing the development of a domestic commercial market.

If President Trump wants to help make America great again, this is one area the United States can be a leader.

Reforming Commercial Drone Regulations

Commercial drones have been a hot topic for sometime now. The benefits are likely to be many, with the most significant near-term economic impacts accruing to the agriculture industry. However, challenges stand in the way of this technology truly taking flight, especially for innovators and entrepreneurs. Some of the challenges for this industry are already apparent, as in the case with the FAA’s recent rules on commercial drone operations. Limiting drone use to visual line-of-sight (VLOS) and daylight-only, while refusing to permit flights over non-operators, are likely to curb new use-cases, like drone delivery services—especially in urban environments, where the network effects are certain to be pronounced. (For a more detailed analysis of the various FAA rules for drone operations, check out these Mercatus regulatory comments, here and here.)  

These innovation limitations and the protracted process it took for matriculation, are prime examples of the need for modernizing the FAA’s regulatory approval process. The agency is simply unable to keep up with the pace of technological progress in this area, and every day we delay holds the potential for investors and talent to flee to friendlier countries. Global innovation arbitrage is real, and federal bureaucracies need to rethink how they approach regulating emerging technologies if the United States is to remain the world’s innovation capital.

Additionally, Uber’s recent white paper discussing the feasibility of introducing vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) drone transports marks an important turning point in the domestic drone conversation. For all the many benefits commercial drones are likely to bring to various sectors of the economy, they could have a profoundly significant impact in moving to disrupt the transportation industry. Although there are many technical challenges ahead for Uber’s skyward dreams, the biggest hurdles remain regulatory. The same is true with respect to Facebook’s Aquila drone project (white paper here), which could be a reasonably priced method of delivering Internet access to underserved areas of the United States—assuming regulations don’t stymie its development and deployment.

As such, the next Congress should take aim at reforming many of the regulatory obstacles to making use of our underutilized national airspace. Some initial steps include:

  1. Modernizing the air traffic control system;
  2. Reforming the more onerous provisions (such as restrictions on VLOS and flights over non-operators) of the FAA’s recent drone rules;
  3. Opening airspace (especially in urban areas) to the benefits of commercial VTOL flight; and
  4. Supporting efforts to make drone-powered Internet access a reality.

However, when it comes to the potential for innovation above our heads, the sky is not the limit.

Opening Space to Commercialization

Space seems to be all the rage these days. Between Elon Musk’s announcement for a manned mission to mars in the next decade and the emerging market for space launch capabilities, we’re currently in the nascent stages of a new space renaissance. However, regulatory barriers still remain to actualizing the dream of a robust, commercial space market. Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are leading the charge in opening the final frontier to competition, but there are still many complex issues—from licensing and certification to export control reforms and orbital situational awareness concerns—that need to be remedied.

Moving forward, the Administration and Congress should become fervently engaged in promoting an agenda that prioritizes liberalizing domestic regulations for the space industry.  The Niskanen Center is currently finalizing a white paper that discusses particular recommendations for policymakers looking to open space to business. Some of those suggestions involve:

  1. Elevating the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (OCST) out of the purview of the FAA, making it a subcabinet within the Department of Transportation;
  2. Setting OCST’s standards for certification and licensing to permission-by-default; and
  3. Working towards phasing out institutionalized policies and systems within the Department of Defense that reduce competition in the space launch market.

Be on the lookout for the forthcoming paper, which will detail these recommendations in more depth.

Why the Time For Action is Now

Airspeeds have stagnated for almost half a century. Drones have the potential to drive innovation in transportation and delivery services that could be a massive benefit to all Americans. Yet the FAA’s rules could very easily curtail many of the most exciting advancements yet to come, such as autonomous operation and passenger transport. The global commercial space sector is starting to take flight, and while the United States is leading in this area, preeminence is not guaranteed.

The regulatory apparatus has failed to deliver on the necessary market certainty and pro-innovation rulemaking that entrepreneurs and startup businesses so desperately need. As a result, the next Administration will be well-poised to promote agency officials who can help reform the way regulatory agencies address emerging technology issues. Congress and President Trump are now in a historic position to promote positive, innovation-friendly regulatory reform. If they can work together, the airspace can be a new platform for innovation, to the benefit of all Americans.

Through 2017 and Beyond

By turning its attention to issues such as these, the 115th Congress and the incoming Trump Administration can help pave the way for untold innovations in the near-future: curing a half century of stagnant commercial airspeeds, paving the way for new and innovative uses of the airspace, and accelerating the emergence of a robust commercial space sector. If we want the future to really take-off, we just need to clear the runway of outdated regulations, while working with policymakers and agencies to chart a course to the skies (and stars). The time has come to open the airspace—and space—to innovation.

Stay tuned next week for the second issue policymakers need to focus on in 2017: artificial intelligence, robotics, and automation.