California was one of 10 states selected to participate in a new federal program that promises to bring drone policies into the 21st century, and the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department is already testing drones that could help combat fires. These tests could yield new benefits for residents and businesses in California, and lawmakers across the country should keep a close eye on the Golden State’s skies as they consider modern drone rules that promote innovation and protect public safety.

In recent years, the advancement of drone technology has outpaced the federal government’s attempts to oversee the emerging industry and its vast potential. As a result, there is a regulatory gap that the Department of Transportation’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems’ Integration Pilot Program (IPP) has the potential to fill. Participating state, local and tribal governments will coordinate with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and private manufacturers to experiment with using drones in new functions. Through these IPP partnerships, federal agencies and local governments can develop a clearer picture of the public benefits drones can offer while being deployed safely and effectively.

California is hitting the ground running. In August, the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department launched drones with cameras that can help firefighters see where a blaze is spreading and identify where people are in need of support. But that’s just the beginning: UC San Diego Health plans to test deliveries of blood products and medicine and major telecommunications companies plan to test drones for installing 5G networks.

Collaboration between government, industry and universities is key. In San Diego, more than 20 regional partners are working together to support the pilot program, including the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp., Intel and UC San Diego Health. Other states — whether they are participating in IPP or not — can follow suit by giving all stakeholders a seat at the table when it comes to unlocking the benefits of drones.


The benefits could be vast for the states that embrace this 360-degree approach. In fact, the integration of drones into the national airspace could account for up to $82 billion in economic impact and create as many as 100,000 jobs by 2025, according to a 2013 report from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Drones are increasingly becoming a mainstream technology for governments and businesses to solve key problems. While much has been made of their potential to revolutionize commerce through quick and efficient package delivery, drones are ready to be used in hurricane response or in lifesaving aspects of medical care. The lesson is clear: technology once regarded as futuristic is here, and it is allowing local governments and private industry to think big about its benefits for communities and consumers alike.

The IPP initiative is a critical first step toward driving advancements in drone technology and identifying the smart policies that can more broadly support its use. These partnerships and the new functionalities being implemented in states like California are proving that what was once science fiction can now be a safe and productive aspect of good governance.

Now policymakers around the country must do their part by taking cues from California’s pilot program and shaping drone policies that foster further innovation while ensuring these technologies are safely and responsibly implemented.

Joe Rinzel is a spokesperson for Americans for a Modern Economy, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit consumer advocacy group focused on modernizing regulations and laws governing the U.S. economy.