WASHINGTON — Ten applicants have been selected to take part in the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program, an initiative started by the U.S. Department of Transportation to address some of the most significant challenges to integrating drones into the national airspace.
According to the agency, the program is a coordinated effort to provide certainty and stability to communities, drone owners and the evolving drone industry — an industry that some estimates say will offer $82 billion of economic benefit within the next 10 years.
In early May, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao announced 10 winners from a list of 149 submitted applications. Because of strong interest from states, local governments, tribes and businesses, the agency approved a total of 10 applications instead of the five that were originally planned.
Announced last October, this initiative partners the Federal Aviation Administration with governments, which then partner with private sector participants to safely explore the further integration of drone operations.
“Data gathered from these pilot projects will form the basis of a new regulatory framework to safely integrate drones into our national airspace,” said Secretary Chao. “The enthusiastic response to our request for applications demonstrated the many innovative technological and operational solutions already on the horizon.”
The 10 selectees include:
Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Durant, Okla.
City of San Diego, San Diego, Calif.
Virginia Tech - Center for Innovative Technology, Herndon, Va.
Kansas Department of Transportation, Topeka, Kan.
Lee County Mosquito Control District, Fort Myers, Fla.
Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, Memphis, Tenn.
North Carolina Department of Transportation, Raleigh, N.C.
North Dakota Department of Transportation, Bismarck, N.D.
City of Reno, Reno, Nev.
University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska
The 10 final selectees will now work with the FAA to refine their operational concepts. No federal funds will be spent on the program, the USDOT said.
Over the next two and a half years, selectees will collect drone data involving night operations, flights beyond the pilot’s line of sight and over individuals, package delivery, detect-and-avoid technologies, and the reliability and security of data links between pilot and aircraft. The data collected from these operations will help the USDOT and FAA craft new rules 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, the agency said.
Fields that could see immediate opportunities from the program include commerce, photography, emergency management, public safety, precision agriculture and infrastructure inspections, the agency said.
The move was welcomed by drone developers like DJI.
“Regulators and governments want to develop safe systems that encourage the beneficial uses of drones while addressing concerns about them, and [the] announcement is a major step forward in this effort,” said Brendan Schulman, DJI vice president of policy and legal affairs. “By connecting state, local and tribal governments with industry partners and federal support, the Integration Pilot Program makes it easier to find ways for American businesses, governments and individuals to put drones to good uses all across the country.”