Big day for drones as US endorses tests of package delivery and more

The FAA is greasing the skids for pilot projects that could mean a defibrillator drops from the sky just when you need it.

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Stephen Shankland
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Zipline drone package drop

A Zipline drone drops a test package over a test site on a ranch in Northern California.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

With new federal support announced Wednesday, it's a good day for drone companies trying to make their way into an airspace that's crowded with regulations, safety concerns, social difficulties and other obstacles.

US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced 10 test projects that will bring the unmanned aircraft into the skies. That means faster approval for experiments that could have drones sending medical supplies like blood and defibrillators, inspecting industrial sites from the air and even transporting people by air.

"Our country is on the verge of the most significant new development in aviation since the emergence of the jet age," Chao said at a press conference. "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."

The projects are part of an effort called the Integration Pilot Program announced in November. Each matches drone companies and state or local governments willing to shoulder some of the responsibilities for developing the technology.

Many folks have purchased drones as novelties, but some of the most interesting work with the aircraft are business uses. Real estate agents could provide prospective buyers with aerial views of properties, oil refineries and pipeline operators could inspect facilities, and of course Amazon could whisk products to your home for near-instant gratification of consumer impulses.

10 drone program winners

The winners picked for the drone pilot program are the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, the North Dakota Department of Transportation; the Lee County Mosquito Control District, in Ft. Myers, Florida; the Kansas Department of Transportation; the University of Alaska at Fairbanks; Virginia Tech; the city of San Diego; the North Carolina Department of Transportation; and the city of Reno, Nevada. In addition, the Memphis, Tennessee airport is another winner with a partner whose name you'll recognize when it comes to package delivery: FedEx.

FedEx won't be dropping any emergency supplies of toothpaste on your front porch, though. Deliveries in the Memphis proposal involve only aircraft parts at the airport and the 4,500-acre Shelby Farms Park in Memphis. Other partners in the project include drone operator 901Drones, supplier Express Drone Parts and drone component maker Intel.

Among the drone companies involved are Fortem, which monitors drone flights and sells an interceptor that can snag unauthorized drones; AirMap, which helps manage drones flying through a complicated airspace; Zipline, which already uses drones to deliver blood to hospitals in Africa; PrecisionHawk, whose drones are used to monitor things like agriculture and construction sites; Matternet, which delivers medical supplies to Swiss hospitals; and Flirtey, which can deliver medical packages like defibrillators.

"Zipline has flown hundreds of thousands of miles and made thousands of deliveries abroad," Zipline Chief Executive Keller Rinaudo said in a statement. "We look forward to bringing this life-saving service to the United States in the coming months."

No Amazon projects

But Amazon, one of the biggest names in drones today, wasn't on the list of winners.

"While it's unfortunate the applications we were involved with were not selected, we support the administration's efforts to create a pilot program aimed at keeping America at the forefront of aviation and drone innovation," said Brian Huseman, Amazon's vice president of public policy, in a statement. "At Amazon Prime Air, we're focused on developing a safe operating model for drones in the airspace and we will continue our work to make this a reality."

Happily for Amazon, Chao said the FAA will work with others among the 150 IPP applicants.

"A lot can proceed under the FAA's current rules," in some cases with waivers from current regulatory constraints, she said. "I have asked the FAA to reach out to many other applicants in coming months and weeks to talk about how they may be able to move forward with their proposals."

Drone innovation in the US

The drone program is a big help for advancing drone businesses, said Bill Goodwin, AirMap's general counsel. Having partnerships with state and local governments means that there's a way to accommodate concerns like local restrictions on times for package delivery. It also offers a way to show people the benefits of drones, like delivering a defibrillator right to someone having a heart attack, not just the risks.

And it'll ensure drone innovation happens in the United States, Goodwin added.

"By creating a regulatory sandbox, the US will bring jobs and innovation back from overseas," he said. AirMap currently operates in New Zealand, Switzerland and Japan.

Chao mentioned several specific areas where drones can help: agriculture, commerce, health care, disaster assistance, emergency response and human transportation.

The IPP makes pilot projects easier, but it doesn't eliminate certification requirements. But with local and state governments on board, potential adversaries to drone experiments become champions.

The IPP is more ambitious than earlier drone programs, but it's not the US government's first. It picked six sites in 2013 for drone research.

First published May 9, 11:51 a.m. PT
Updated several times between 1 p.m. and 3:09 p.m. PT: Added further details.

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