DOT Approves Ten Pilot Projects for Advanced Drone Operations

Client Alert

On Wednesday, May 9, 2018, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao announced the selection of ten proposals from a field of 149 applications submitted jointly by industry and government entities to conduct advanced drone operations under the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program (UAS IPP). Each of the projects will involve UAS (drone) operations beyond the scope currently permitted under the FAA’s August 2016 rule on the operation of small commercial drones—Part 107—including flight above people and at night.

The primary purpose of the UAS IPP is to foster government-private sector collaboration to accelerate the safe integration of UAS into the national airspace system. The data collected as a result of the UAS IPP will permit the FAA to develop new rules that allow more advanced low-altitude drone operations than contemplated under the current Part 107 rules.

All ten of the selected pilot programs will test new technologies permitting flight beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) for missions as varied as parcel delivery, aerial spraying and infrastructure inspection. (Surprisingly, Amazon package delivery is not one of the selected programs, despite Amazon’s leadership in the industry.) Some of the notable pilot programs selected include:

  • The city of San Diego, CA, partnering with Uber and other carriers, will test drone food delivery using new communications technologies including 5G networks.
  • The city of Reno, NV, will partner with drone delivery startup Flirtey and a local ambulance company to test drone delivery of defibrillators to on-scene emergency responders.
  • Lee County, Florida, will partner with aviation services to operate large unmanned aircraft weighing 1,500 lbs. and capable of lifting significant quantities of insecticides for aerial spraying within the county.
  • The North Carolina Department of Transportation will partner with PrecisionHawk to test its passive acoustic detection system in conjunction with localized drone parcel delivery.
  • The University of Alaska at Fairbanks will partner with local utilities on automated UAS for pipeline inspection.
  • The commonwealth of Virginia and Virginia Tech will partner with several corporations, including Google’s sister company, Project Wing, along with Intel, AT&T, Airbus Aerial, State Farm, Dominion Energy, the Sinclair Broadcast Group and HAZON Solutions, in six different Virginia counties to experiment with package delivery, emergency management and infrastructure inspection. (The FAA previously selected Virginia Tech in Blacksburg as one of six drone test sites in 2013, in preparation for Part 107.)

According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), by 2025 more than 100,000 jobs will be created by the drone industry in the United States, with an economic impact of $82 billion. Fields that could see immediate benefits from the UAS IPP include parcel delivery, photography, emergency management, public safety, precision agriculture and infrastructure inspections.

Businesses that have been reluctant to integrate UAS into their operations due to regulatory or technological constraints should keep track of the technological developments and data coming out of the UAS IPP, as they will provide an insightful window into the FAA’s easing of restrictions on automated (pilotless) drone operations. The potential for revolutionizing how consumers do business with online and brick-and-mortar retail, and how utilities and other industries use drones to enhance safety and profitability, is staggering.

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Andrew Zimmitti is a complex commercial litigator, certificated private pilot and leader of Manatt’s unmanned aircraft practice. Manatt’s UA practice brings together a cross-disciplinary group of attorneys with a broad range of experience to assist clients with commercial UA operational and ownership concerns. As an emerging technology, the commercial use of drones presents unique legal challenges and opportunities that manufacturers, operators and owners must consider. Understanding and adapting to this rapidly changing legal and regulatory landscape is essential. Manatt’s practice team brings together the expertise, insight and legal services needed to successfully navigate in this growing industry.