Transportation Department Rolls Out New Program to Further Drive Drone Integration

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It will build on a recently completed pilot that used drones to deliver small packages, count cattle—and more.

A three-year Transportation Department-led drone integration pilot program came to a close last week—and the day after its completion, the agency launched a new initiative to further unravel what it deems “remaining challenges” keeping the unmanned aircraft systems from being fully fused into the national air space. 

Created by a presidential memorandum, the UAS Integration Pilot Program, or IPP, began in October 2017 with the rollout of a competitive selection process involving 149 applicants. The ultimate intent of the program was to link up state, local and tribal governments with industry partners, and ultimately drive forward drone operations in certain areas of U.S. skies. The Federal Aviation Administration engaged in memoranda of agreement, or MOAs, with 10 of the governments to explore drone integration, though one dropped out in early 2019.

Through IPP, the public and private sector teams collaboratively produced relevant use cases to operate drones under existing FAA regulations. Each project was expected to subsequently inform unfolding rulemaking, policies and guidance governing the flying objects. 

Using UAS, the teams were able to deliver packages and medical equipment, examine and inspect pipelines, power lines, flood damage and other aircraft, count cattle, respond to 911 calls—and more. And when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and disrupted all national efforts, some participants shifted from their original goals to assist with response and recovery.

“The IPP propelled the American drone industry forward, allowing for unprecedented expansions in testing and operations through innovative private-public partnerships across the country,” U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios said in a statement. IPP concluded October 25. Kratsios further added that through the Transportation Department’s brand new BEYOND program—unveiled October 26—officials aim to “build upon this success, tackling the next big challenges facing drone integration.”

According to the FAA’s BEYOND program overview, those hurdles include “Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations that are repeatable, scalable and economically viable,” particularly in the realm of infrastructure inspection, public operations and small package delivery. Community engagement to address concerns on the ground and harnessing private sector operations to better grasp the benefits drones present are also listed as to-be-addressed. 

Like the pilot that came prior, BEYOND is also meant to act as an avenue through which the FAA can gain a better grasp of moves that can be made to streamline and boost UAS integration. 

Eight of the nine lead IPP participants will participate in BEYOND. They include: Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma; Innovation and Entrepreneurship Investment Authority of Virginia; Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority; City of Reno, Nevada; University of Alaska-Fairbanks; and the Kansas, North Carolina, and North Dakota Transportation Departments.