10 teams win federal approval to push the limits with drones, but Amazon’s left out

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Pilot projects will send drones where no drones have gone before. (Aerix Photo)

The U.S. Department of Transportation has selected 10 state, local and tribal governments to oversee pilot projects that will go where no drones have gone before. But this time around, Amazon has been grounded.

The projects are meant to help set a course for ever-expanding drone operations over the next three years.

“Data gathered from these pilot projects will form the basis of a new regulatory framework to safely integrate drones into our national airspace,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said today in a news release.

Under the experimental program — known as the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program, or UAS IPP — officials at the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies spent months reviewing 149 proposals submitted in response to a call that was put out last October.

The process required governmental agencies to choose up teams and seek the federal government’s go-ahead to try out modes of operation that are usually off-limits to small-sized drones, such as flying beyond an operator’s line of sight, operating after dark or flying over large groups of uninvolved people.

Such modes are seen as essential for widescale commercial applications such as the package delivery systems that Amazon, Walmart and other retailers are working on.

In an emailed statement, Amazon said it’s not working with any of the 10 teams that were selected in the first round for the UAS IPP program.

“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, vice president of Amazon public policy. “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.”

Amazon has been conducting its testing program under other regulatory frameworks. It has drone development centers and test sites in a variety of countries, including the U.S. as well as Britain, Austria, France and Israel.

Here are the 10 sites chosen for pilot projects, and the focus of each project:

  • Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Durant, Okla.: Test extended visual line-of-sight operations. Team partners include CNN and Green Valley Farms, which already has a 3,500-acre drone testing site in Oklahoma.
  • City of San Diego: Test drone operations for border protection and package delivery of food, with a secondary focus on international commerce, surveillance and interoperability with autonomous vehicles and smart-city systems. Partners include Uber, Qualcomm, Matternet and the University of California at San Diego’s hospital system.
  • Virginia Tech – Center for Innovative Technology, Herndon, Va.: Facilitate package delivery in rural and urban settings, and test technologies including detect-and-avoid, identification and tracking, radar systems and mapping tools. Partners include NASA, the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, Intel, ATT, Airbus Aerial, State Farm, Dominion Energy, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Alphabet’s Project Wing, which got its start from Google.
  • Kansas Department of Transportation, Topeka, Kan.: Test operations beyond visual line of sight, and leverage a statewide unmanned traffic management system to facilitate precision agriculture operations. Partners include local agencies and universities.
  • Lee County Mosquito Control District, Fort Myers, Fla.: Test low-altitude aerial applications to monitor and control the district’s mosquito population.
  • Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, Memphis, Tenn.: Test techniques to inspect FedEx aircraft. Conduct autonomous flights to support airport operations such as perimeter security surveillance and delivery of packages, including airplane parts. Partners include FedEx, Intel and units of General Electric.
  • North Carolina Department of Transportation, Raleigh, N.C.: Test localized packaged delivery, including drone flights over people, beyond visual line of sight and at night. The test will focus on delivering blood and other medical supplies. Partners include Zipline, Flytrex, Matternet and Precision Hawk.
  • North Dakota Department of Transportation, Bismarck, N.D.: Test technologies to expand drone operations at night and beyond visual line of sight. Partners reportedly include CNN, Airbus and Xcel Energy.
  • City of Reno, Nev.: Focus on the time-sensitive delivery of lifesaving medical equipment, such as medical defibrillators, in urban and rural environments. Partners include FedEx and Flirtey, which has previously conducted drone delivery experiments in the Reno area with 7-Eleven and Pizza Hut..
  • University of Alaska at Fairbanks: Test drone operations for inspections, remote surveying and public safety under harsh conditions.

The Transportation Department says more demonstration projects may be given the go-ahead in future rounds.

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