In many fields it’s often the private sector that has led the way to new innovations with the government left behind to catch up with regulations. That has mostly been the case in the drone industry. Companies firms like DJI and Intel have helped bring to reality futuristic drone programs and applications.
But this time the government is not so far behind.
In fact the government has done a great job keeping up with the rapid growth in the drone industry. And not just in introducing drone regulations but also encouraging new innovations.
It’s sort of the same thing we are seeing in the self-driving cars industry.
Their latest effort to advance the drone industry and improve safety is the launch of the UAS Integration Pilot Program.
Laying the Ground for New Drone Applications
Currently the rules for flying drones in the US are fairly strict. You have to maintain line of sight at all times, you cannot fly at night and you have to fly no higher than 400 feet among several other rules.
If you want to go beyond these constraints you have to apply for a special waiver, which is no easy task.
The new drone integration program is aimed at finding new uses for drones that require operations beyond what is currently allowed.
These test drone programs will help the FAA modify their rules to allow for new drone applications.
According to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, “Data gathered from these pilot projects will form the basis of a new regulatory framework to safely integrate drones into our national airspace.”
This initiative could not have come at a better time for the drone industry. Companies and drone users are itching to break ground on new uses but are held back by current regulations.
Amazon for instance is already testing drone delivery via their Amazon Prime Air program. Even UPS is betting big on drone to reduce their delivery costs and improve efficiency.
Other companies are testing passenger taxi drones that could prove useful for short hops in cities.
The program will make way for a torrent of new drone applications.
Partnerships with Local Governments and Firms
The Department of Transportation is not doing this alone. In fact, the department is using no federal funds in any of the planned drone programs.
Instead they are partnering with local governments and companies to test new applications and collect data.
Some of the 10 selectees chosen for the program include North Carolina Department of Transportation, City of San Diego, Lee County Mosquito Control District and University of Alaska-Fairbanks.
The department also tapped Microsoft, Google and Qualcomm to help with the integration program. Interestingly Amazon and DJI were left out though they had applied.
Each selectee will run specific tests. The Lee County Mosquito Control District for instance will track and control mosquito larvae using drones.
The Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority will use drones for various airport operations including safety and infrastructure operations.
Virginia Tech will test package delivery among other applications.
Choctaw Nation will work with Green Valley Farms Living Laboratory and CNN to test night operations, flying over people and flying beyond line of sight.
The program will run for two and a half years. There will be extensive data collection involving the safety, benefits, efficacy and practicality of these applications.
The department will use the data to create new rules that allow for improved drone safety (especially in regards to sharing airspace with planes), new low-altitude operations and improve data privacy.
These new rules will have a huge impact on many drone applications. Some of the biggest beneficiaries will be search and rescue, photography, agriculture, infrastructure inspection and law enforcement.
Another big impact the department foresees is the creation of new jobs including new business opportunities for drone operators and drone training programs.
They cite a report by AUVSI (Association For Unmanned Vehicle Systems International) which predicts the creation of more than 70,000 jobs in the first three years after successful integration of the new regulation framework.
By 2025, this will grow to over 100,000 jobs and add more than $82 billion to the economy.