The US government is making good on its promise to expand the use of drones. The Department of Transportation has named the 10 projects that will participate in its Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program, and they represent a wide swath of the country. Most of them are municipal or state government bodies, including the cities of Reno and San Diego, Memphis’ County Airport Authority and the Transportation Departments for Kansas, North Carolina and North Dakota. However, the rest are notable: the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma will be part of the program, as will the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and Virginia Tech.
Notably, Virginia Tech is working with Google’s Project Wing drone delivery initiative as well as transportation and tech giants like Airbus, AT&T and Intel.
The pilot will see the chosen projects collecting drone data over the next 2.5 years to see how drones can safely integrate into American airspace in ways that go beyond existing FAA regulations. That will range from deliveries through to night flights, beyond-line-of-flight trips and collision avoidance tests. If all goes well, this could lead to rules allowing “more complex” low-altitude drone operations.
There are bound to be safety concerns if the program leads to wider use of drones. Air traffic controllers already grapple with drone safety issues, for instance. Even so, some kind of expansion might be important. Long-distance courier drones are difficult or impossible to implement under the current approach — lifting restrictions for certain flight types might make them entirely feasible.