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Chao Vows ‘Mystery Drone’ Solution

By David Benjamin

LAS VEGAS — It was just a tad ironic.

Only five days after her boss, President Trump, had ordered a drone strike that killed Iranian General Qassim Soleimani at Baghdad International Airport, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao promised a standing-room-only audience Wednesday at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that she will be cracking down on the unregulated use of drones in U.S. airspace.

In a keynote address at the Las Vegas Convention Center, Secretary Chao made specific reference to the “mystery drones” that have been spotted recently cruising the night skies over Nebraska and Colorado. She said that these flights, which have disturbed residents of those areas, demonstrate the Wild West character of the currently unregulated drone phenomenon.

She noted that today, there are more than 1.5 million drones in private or corporate ownership, flown by 160,000 registered remote pilots, “a job category that didn’t even exist five years ago.” But there are many more drones and pilots that are neither counted nor certified. The Department of Transportation (DOT) currently has little power over who flies drones and where they fly.

She said her department is making plans to initiate drone testing for safety and airworthiness, manage drone air space, set up rules for identifying drones remotely, and registering drones and their pilots.

On the latter point, she said that, according to rules now being written, any drone heavier than eight ounces will be either registered with the government or it will be illegal. This registration would enable all federal, state, and local agencies to identify drones operating in their air space and help them manage the exploding population of these suddenly popular devices.

Chao noted that a 60-day period for public comment about the proposed drone regulations will end on March 20.

Touching on a topic dear to the hearts of CES convention-goers, Chao announced also that her department has just promulgated a document called AV 4.0, formulating updated policies on the development of autonomous (self-driving) vehicles (AVs). While offering familiar bromides on the promise of greater road safety and reduced traffic fatalities with automated vehicles, Chao hinted that the government, at this stage, remains reluctant to intervene in the development of a heavily invested technology that has recently faltered. Carmakers and technology companies are struggling with the challenge of establishing uniform AV safety standards.

Fatal accidents involving autonomous vehicles made by Uber and Tesla have exacerbated public misgivings about AVs and sent AV designers and safety experts back to the drawing board.

Suggesting a hands-off approach by the DOT’s safety agencies, Chao defined her department’s role as “promoting efficient markets.” She said, “It’s not the role of federal government to pick winners and losers.” She said that the DOT will “remain technologically neutral … and encourage innovation by protecting intellectual property.”

“Innovation,” in an expansion of its dictionary meaning, has become a sort of mantra for technology corporations to justify their opposition to regulatory scrutiny by government agencies. It pops up often in speeches delivered at CES.

Chao vowed to “modernize all these regulations” related to automotive safety in light of the emergence of self-driving technology. Regulations are important, she said, but those that are “obsolete, irrelevant, and outdated need to be changed.” She offered no specifics but promised a “consistent government approach” to the facilitation of autonomous vehicle technology as fast as possible.

Michael Kratsios, the White House’s Chief Technology Officer, followed Chao’s keynote by emphasizing the president’s commitment to artificial intelligence (AI) development — a key element in self-driving vehicles — as expressed in an executive order, issued last year on “Maintaining American Leadership in Artificial Intelligence.”

Kratsios said that “the United States is leading the world” in AI research and development, a claim difficult to verify, and that the president’s involvement ensures this continued leadership. He said the administration is committed to “policies that generate trust in government and with building the applicability of artificial intelligence.”

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