The proliferation of inexpensive and efficient drone aircraft prompted the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to take action several years ago. The first official government regulations for drone aircraft were heavy-handed, but there are some indications the rules could be eased. The Department of Transportation has announced 10 new projects as part of the FAA’s Integration Pilot Program. These tests, which involve local governments and businesses, will help evaluate an expanded role for drones that don’t have to follow the strict rules. Some of the companies involved include FedEx, Google, and Uber. Conspicuously absent: Amazon.
Announced in 2015, the FAA’s rules on the use of commercial drones put a damper on many projects around the country. Operators must register to use drones that weigh more than 0.55 pounds, which is virtually all devices. They can only operate at 400 feet or lower, and only during the day. Perhaps the most onerous restriction requires operators to maintain line-of-sight with the aircraft. That makes delivery systems like Amazon’s Prime Air impossible.
The FAA fielded hundreds of proposals for its Integration Pilot Program before whittling the list down to ten finalists. For example, Google’s Project Wing delivery drones will get a trial run in Virginia. Amazon was involved with several applications, but none of them were selected. The current US administration has clashed with Amazon with frequent, incendiary tweets from the president.
Project Wing will be delivering purchased items to customers, but other tests in the Integration Pilot Program are somewhat more vital. In fact, the agency noted that the Integration Pilot Program is aimed mainly at projects that will address public needs. In San Diego, for example, drones will be evaluated for important medical deliveries. A similar medical delivery test will take place in North Carolina with the help of drone maker PrecisionHawk. Reno-based Flirtey will operate in four of the 10 cities to deliver defibrillators to heart attack patients.
Outside the medical field, FedEx, GE, and Intel will work with the city of Memphis to inspect airport runways and deliver parts to maintenance workers. Uber is also part of San Diego’s tests, but it’s not flying its own drones. Instead, it will develop drone landing stations that could one day be home to drones from Uber and other firms.
US secretary of transportation Elaine Chao noted in the announcement that the agency may still reach out to partnerships that were not selected as part of the Integration Pilot Program. It’s possible some could still get special waivers that allow them to ignore some or all of the current rules.