The US has announced 10 pilot schemes to test unmanned aerial technologies and explore drones’ potential to help communities and businesses throughout America. Chris Middleton looks at the winners and losers.
The Department of Transportation has announced the 10 winning projects in its unmanned aerial systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program, which is designed to explore how drones can safely be integrated into towns and cities to perform a wide range of commercial and community functions.
US transportation secretary Elaine Chao said that the government must “create a path forward” to ensure the safe integration of drones with both local communities and US airspace.
Alphabet, Qualcomm, Microsoft, and Apple are involved as technology partners in some of the winning schemes (see below), along with AT&T, Intel, Airbus, NASA, and others. However, the government has omitted the world’s biggest drone company, China’s DJI, and retail and Web services giant Amazon from the programme.
Amazon, which plans to enter the autonomous deliveries market with both road vehicles and drones, submitted a range of proposals for pilot schemes, none of which have been picked up. It is not known if President Trump’s war of words with the company over its use of the loss-making US postal service was a factor in the omission.
It caps a bad week for the company, which was accused by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella of “rigging” markets in a CNBC interview.
The 10 successful schemes
The ten winning entries out of nearly 150 submitted in open competition are:
Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Durant, OK
The proposal focuses on the use of drones in agricultural, public safety, and infrastructure inspections, with planned night flights and beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations. CNN and the Green Valley Farms Living Laboratory are among the partners.
City of San Diego, CA
Border protection and the packaged delivery of food are the key areas, with a secondary focus on international commerce, smart city/autonomous vehicle interoperability, and surveillance. The proposal will employ a variety of technologies, including 5G test networks, the 4G LTE cellular network, and AT&T’s national first responder network authority (FirstNet.) Qualcomm is among the other partners.
Innovation and Entrepreneurship Investment Authority, Herndon, VA
This proposal seeks to explore package deliveries by drone in rural and urban settings, including the use of technologies such as detect and avoid, identification and tracking, radar systems, and mapping tools. Partners include Virginia Tech, NASA, Alphabet’s Project Wing, AT&T, Intel, Airbus, and Dominion Energy.
Kansas Department of Transportation, Wichita, KS
This community-focused programme aims to deploy drones to support beyond BVLOS operations in rural areas, via a state-wide unmanned-traffic management system for precision agriculture. Microsoft is among the supporting partners.
Lee County Mosquito Control District, Ft. Myers, FL
The proposal focuses on low-altitude drone applications to survey and control the local mosquito population, using infrared imaging and satellite connectivity.
Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, Memphis, TN
This programme focuses on the drone inspection of aircraft, and autonomous operations that support airport operations such as perimeter security and package delivery. Partners include FedEx and Agricenter International, with an estimated $500 million in annual benefits to the economy, according to the government.
North Carolina Department of Transportation, Raleigh, NC
The proposal aims to test local package delivery within a safe, defined airspace by establishing drone delivery stations in local communities. The government believes this could benefit small businesses in particular.
At least one large business is certainly benefiting: Apple is among the technology partners. The company said it will use the programme to improve its mapping technology. “Apple is committed to protecting people’s privacy, including processing this data to blur faces and licence plates prior to publication,” it said in a written statement.
North Dakota Department of Transportation, Bismarck, ND
The winning entry includes proposals for a wide variety of applications that seek to expand drone operations at night and beyond visual line of sight.
The City of Reno, NV
The pilot programme will explore the time-sensitive delivery of life-saving medical equipment in urban and rural environments, such as medical defibrillators in emergency situations.
University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK
Pipeline inspection and and the opportunity to develop drone technologies that work in remote areas and harsh climates are the core benefits of this scheme. Collision avoidance, ADS-B, differential GPS, satellite services, infrared imaging, and UTM are among the technologies that will be deployed.
Full details of the ten winning schemes are available here.
Policing the airspace
As well as testing technologies and proving concepts, the national pilot programme is designed to assist the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in establishing rules and regulations to integrate drones safely at scale with civilian and military airspace.
Among the decisions that the FAA still needs to take, however, include whether drone deliveries should follow city streets or cross backyards. Current rules prohibit nighttime drone flights or operations over people without a waiver.
The FAA has said that its current tight regulations are necessary to protect both the public and US airspace from “bad actors and errant hobbyists”.
Chinese drone giant DJI said it submitted about a dozen applications for pilot schemes to the government, but none of these have been approved by the Department for Transportation. However, as by far the largest manufacturer of non-military drones, holding 70 percent of the world market – notably in the $500+ bracket – it is likely that DJI drones will be deployed in at least some of the programmes.
“We congratulate the winners and will be happy to work with any of them with hardware, software, or technical assistance to help these exciting ideas come to life,” said Adam Lisberg, DJI spokesman.
Plus: Uber seeks partner city for air taxis
In related news, Uber is seeking a third partner city for its UberAIR scheme to create fleets of unmanned electric air taxis. Los Angeles and Dallas are already onboard to host future tests. Uber aims to have technologies in place by 2020, and to be operating commercially by 2023.
Dubai had previously been announced as the third partner, but delays there have persuaded Uber to look for an alternative, which should be home to more than two million people, according to the company.
Internet of Business says
DJI faces two challenges in gaining government support for US-wide or state programmes: previous controversy over the security of its drones – which the company addressed by commissioning a recent independent review – and the Trump administration’s deepening trade war with China.
Asked why the Department of Transportation had not selected DJI or Amazon, deputy transportation secretary Jeff Rosen told Reuters that “there were no losers, only winners. This is an important first step in the process of drone integration.”
Transport secretary Chao has suggested that some of the 139 schemes not selected for the official programme may receive the green light at some point in the future.
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