Just over six months after President Trump announced the creation of a program meant to spur the development of drone trials around the country, the Department of Transportation has announced the first 10 winners. Among those selected, three state transportation agencies, two US cities, and two universities will work with private companies like FedEx and CNN on trials that will see drones used for tasks like package delivery, journalism, healthcare, and more.
“This is such an exciting day for aviation, for safety, for innovation,” US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said at an event today in Washington, DC. The US is at a “tipping point” with drones, she said, as 1.1 million of them (and 90,000 pilots) have been registered with the Federal Aviation Administration. “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.”
Formally known as the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot, the program encourages US cities and states to partner with companies on drone trials that expand how the aircraft are used around the country. This includes, in some cases, allowing drones to fly over crowds, beyond the pilot’s line of sight, and at night — situations that are usually prohibited unless the person flying obtains an official waiver from the FAA.
The goal with the program is to accelerate potential commercial applications for drone use. One of the 10 selections is Florida’s Lee County Mosquito Control District. The small government agency will use drones to help control mosquito populations by searching for hard-to-find pockets of larvae at a faster rate than inspectors can on foot, while also reducing the risk of being bitten. The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma will work on flying drones beyond a pilot’s line of sight as part of a partnership with CNN.
A popular use for drones so far has been delivery services, and a number of those were announced today. North Carolina’s DOT was selected to work with a company called Flytrex to test the food drone delivery service the startup has been running in Iceland. Tennessee’s Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority was chosen to test deliveries in partnership with FedEx, which is headquartered in Memphis. (The authority said it will also test using drones for security and infrastructure inspection at the airport, too.)
The City of Reno, Nevada was picked to work with Flirtey, a company that’s focused on using drones to deliver medical supplies. Flirtey was responsible for the first FAA-approved drone delivery back in 2015. “I’d like to thank President Trump for making the drone age a reality in America,” Flirtey CEO Matthew Sweeney said during the event. The two sides say they hope to create a model for medical deliveries that could scale up to be used across the country.
The 10 winners were picked from 149 proposals, according to the DOT. Their work is not done, which seems to be partly where there’s still a dearth of specifics for some of the programs. The agencies behind each selected idea will now have to submit “memorandums of agreement” to the FAA, which will lay out the full details of each trial. Once that part of the process is complete, they will have around two and a half years to run the trials. And they’ll have to share the data they collect along the way with the DOT and the FAA, which the agencies say will help pave the way for better nationwide rules around how drones should be used going forward.