Drone delivery in the US could soon be a reality, as US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced 10 test projects that will allow companies including Alphabet, FedEx, and Uber to test the unmanned aircrafts across the country.
The winning companies and projects were among 149 proposals vying for federal support through the Integration Pilot Program launched by President Donald Trump last year. The projects could allow the companies to have a say in how regulations for the growing industry are shaped, and pave the way for more businesses to take the skies in this way.
"Our country is on the verge of the most significant new development in aviation since the emergence of the jet age," Chao said at a press conference. "We've got to create a path forward for the safe integration of drones if our country is to remain a global aviation leader and reap the safety and economic benefits drones have to offer."
The pilot project winners include the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, the Memphis, TN airport, the North Dakota Department of Transportation, the Lee County Mosquito Control District, in Fort Myers, FL, the Kansas Department of Transportation, the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, Virginia Tech, the city of San Diego, the North Carolina Department of Transportation, and the city of Reno, NV.
SEE: Drone policy (Tech Pro Research)
Each project matches a drone company with a local government to develop the technology, our sister site CNET reported. The projects are varied: The Lee County Mosquito Control District in Florida plans to use a 1,500-pound drone for pest control, while FedEx plans to use drones to deliver aircraft parts and perform infrastructure inspections at the Memphis airport. In Reno, drones will carry defibrillators to heart attack victims. Alphabet Project Wing drones in Virginia will be used to deliver goods to consumers.
The Integration Pilot Program aims to address the challenges of integrating drones into the national airspace, as well as reduce risks to public safety and security, according to a USDOT press release. Integrating unmanned aircraft into US airspace could lead to a potential economic benefit of $82 billion, as well as the creation of 100,000 jobs in the next decade, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).
The 10 winners will work with the FAA to update their operational concepts through Memorandums of Agreement, which will establish each parties' responsibilities and operations, and any data-sharing requirements. No federal funds will be spent on the program.
Over the next two and a half years, the project winners will collect drone data, including information related to night operations, flights over people and beyond the pilot's line of sight, package delivery, and the reliability and security of data links between the pilot and the aircraft, the release noted. The data collected will help the USDOT and the FAA craft new regulations.
Fields including commerce, emergency management, public safety, agriculture, and infrastructure all stand to benefit from the program, the release said.
Other companies involved include Intel, Qualcomm, and a number of drone companies like Fortem and Flirtey. It's worth noting that Amazon, which has been testing drone deliveries via Prime Air, was not included.
"While it's unfortunate the applications we were involved with were not selected, we support the administration's efforts to create a pilot program aimed at keeping America at the forefront of aviation and drone innovation," Brian Huseman, Amazon's vice president of public policy, said in a statement. "At Amazon Prime Air, we're focused on developing a safe operating model for drones in the airspace and we will continue our work to make this a reality."
However, Chao did say that the FAA will work with others among the 149 applicants, CNET reported.
The big takeaways for tech leaders:
- The USDOT announced 10 test projects that will allow companies including Alphabet, FedEx, and Uber to test the unmanned aircrafts across the country.
- The US Integration Pilot Program will collect data on drone usage and pave the way for new regulations.
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Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.