The Federal Aviation Administration has a lot of restrictions on drone use that prevent, or make it very difficult, to use them in ways that would be helpful to government. Operators can't fly drones over groups of people, they can't fly at night and they can't let the machines go beyond their line of sight.
But the agency is taking steps to relax those restrictions. Last week, the FAA announced 10 projects that will participate in its Unmanned Aerial System Integration Pilot Program, where federal, state, local and tribal governments will work with private-sector and nonprofit partners to test drones under some of those restricted conditions. Eventually, the administration wants to use its observations from the projects to change up the rules and make it easier for drone users to operate under more conditions.
Here's what the 10 projects will entail:
Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
In a plan that will involve night flying, flying over people and flying beyond visual line of sight, the Choctaw Nation and its partners will explore use cases related to infrastructure inspections, public safety and agriculture. The tests will incorporate ground-based "detect and avoid" systems, which help drones avoid other aircraft.
City of San Diego
The city will primarily focus on border security and food delivery use cases, but will have a "secondary focus" on surveillance, international commerce and integration with smart city systems. San Diego plans to involve a lot of communications work in the project, testing 5G, 4G LTE and FirstNet networks as well as working with drone-specific identification capabilities.
Innovation and Entrepreneurship Investment Authority (Herndon, Va.)
The authority will test rural and urban package delivery, incorporating drone-supporting technologies like detection and avoidance, identification, and tracking and mapping systems. It will also involve a cybersecurity component.
Kansas Department of Transportation
The department will focus on "precision agriculture" in rural areas, using existing assets such as fiber-optic-based connections and the state's UAS traffic management software. It will incorporate various technologies, including Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, satellite support and geo-fencing.
Lee County, Fla., Mosquito Control District
Using a 1,500-lb. drone — very large, compared to most UAS — the district wants to use technologies such as satellite communications, infrared imaging and more to perform surveillance and control missions on mosquitoes.
Memphis-Shelby County, Tenn., Airport Authority
Working with FedEx and other local partners, the airport will explore package delivery, aircraft inspections, perimeter surveillance and more. The program will also include UTM (unmanned traffic management) software that incorporates manned and unmanned traffic.
The department will look into drone package delivery, using designated delivery stations and emphasizing the ability to serve small businesses. The tests will take place under various restricted conditions and will involve drone-supporting technologies.
North Carolina Department of Transportation
North Dakota Department of Transportation
The department will seek to gather data relevant to four areas: external systems, aircraft system technologies, training needs and processes and procedures.
City of Reno, Nev.
The city will focus on drone medical deliveries such as defibrillators in a three-mile radius. The tests will incorporate weather data and radar into drone operations.
University of Alaska Fairbanks
Though the university has a variety of tests in mind, its main focus will be on pipeline inspection and remote surveying under harsh conditions. The projects will incorporate a host of supporting technologies.