U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao officially announced the first 10 participants in the agency’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program at a May 9 event in Washington D.C.; a three-year test program led by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), that includes local, state, and tribal governments plus private sector firms that will integrate drones into the nation’s airspace system.
“Our country is on the verge of the most significant development in aviation since the jet airplane age,” Chao noted in her remarks during the livestreamed event at USDOT’s Washington D.C. headquarters.
“This technology is developing so rapidly that our country has reached a tipping point,” she said, adding that there are now 1.1 million drones in operation today along with 90,000 registered drone operators.
“To reap the safety and economic benefits drones have to offer, we need to create a safe pathway for them,” Chao stressed. “So this pilot program will safely test drones in conditions they are currently forbidden from operating in – beyond line of sight, over the heads of people, and at night.”
The Trump administration established this pilot program in October 2017 with a presidential memorandum, giving USDOT until May of this year to establish at least five sites for “experimentation” with drone operations, as well as developing new “governance structures” that give state, local, and tribal governments a role in regulating and enforcing drone operations.
USDOT said 149 communities and private sector firms applied to participate in the UAS integration pilot program, from which 10 were selected. Three of the 10 awards are directly to state departments of transportation: the North Carolina Department of Transportation; the North Dakota Department of Transportation; and the Kansas Department of Transportation.
In addition, Tennessee Department of Transportation and the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities are partners to two other awardees, Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority and the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, respectively.
[Side note: the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials put together a series of special video reports on how state departments of transportation are deploying drones in their operations. Part two of that series can be viewed below.]
“Drones are a big part of the future – whether for package delivery or disaster response,” noted Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., during the USDOT event. “This is a major development for Memphis and puts us on the map as a major player in the nascent drone industry. In the months ahead, Memphis will increase its stature as a center for this cutting-edge technology and will advance the integration of unmanned aerial systems into the national airspace.”
The primary focus of NCDOT’s proposal is to work with global drone delivery companies, such as Zipline, Matternet, and Flytrex, to set up a network of “medical distribution centers” that can use drones to transport blood and other medical supplies. NCDOT added that it has partnered with existing drone software companies like AirMap and Raleigh-based PrecisionHawk to develop unmanned traffic management or “UTM” systems that track drones as they fly.
“North Carolina has always been on the forefront of aviation innovation and now is a national leader in drone safety education and use,” said Chief Deputy Secretary David Howard, who attended the announcement on behalf of NCDOT. “Being selected for this program will allow us to learn more about how drones can safely be used in new ways to help our citizens.”
Meanwhile, Kansas Secretary of Transportation Richard Carlson said the pilot program offers a “terrific opportunity” to explore new ways to use drones to “reduce the risks to our workers during infrastructure inspections, search and rescue and remote area assessments,” especially since KDOT must keep an eye on about 140,000 miles of public roads, many in rural areas.
He noted that specific tasks KDOT hopes to test using drones include monitoring weather-affected roads, conducting bridge inspections with minimal impact to traffic, plus locating and assisting stranded motorists more quickly.
USDOT said that 10 final selectees will now work with the FAA to refine their operational concepts through memorandums of agreement or “MOAs” that describe specific concepts of operations they will undertake, establish any data-sharing requirements, and specify that no federal funds will be spent on the program.
Over the next two and a half years, USDOT said the selectees will collect drone data involving night operations, flights over people and beyond the pilot’s line of sight, package delivery, detect-and-avoid technologies and the reliability and security of data links between pilot and drone.
That data will then help USDOT and FAA craft new “enabling rules” to allow for more complex low-altitude operations, identify ways to balance local and national interests related to UAS integration, improve communications with local, state and tribal jurisdictions, address security and privacy risks, and accelerate the approval of operations that currently require special authorizations.
USDOT also placed a future proposal regarding the remote identification of drones with the Office of Management and Budget’s unified registry on May 9 as well; targeting a May 2019 publication date for a proposed rule on that issue.
“As drones become further integrated into our airspace, there is vast potential for unmanned systems and the economic impact they can create—but we need to make sure it happens in a safe and sustainable manner,” noted Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., during the USDOT event.
“We have seen how safe and efficient UAS could help farmers grow crops, enable [North Dakota] to monitor energy infrastructure, and be deployed to protect the Northern Border. Now our state is getting additional resources to the expanding UAS sector – and that’s great news,” she added. “We also have a saying in North Dakota: go big or go home. And if we have a good idea, we don’t go home. So we are going to advance this [drone operation] light years ahead of where we are today. This is only the beginning of the next age of aviation.”