Federal Drone Program Coming to an Airspace Near You

By: Killoran Long, Summer Blogger

Last October, the White House announced plans to “Make American Aviation Great Again” through a drone integration program to be run by the Department of Transportation (DOT). Officially dubbed the “Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program,” the program is described as “an opportunity for state, local, and tribal governments to partner with private sector entities, such as UAS operators or manufacturers, to accelerate safe UAS integration.”  https://pixabay.com/en/drone-uav-sky-clouds-quadrocopter-1765141/

The primary purpose of the Program is to improve airspace safety by updating outdated aviation regulations, while also identifying low-altitude airspace interests given the increasing number of drones – the more commonly used term for UAS – in operation. Beyond safety, however, the DOT believes the program could also create opportunities for commerce in industries like photography, emergency management, public safety, agriculture, and beyond. The selected participants will work with the DOT to collect drone data over the next two to three years related to: night flights, flights over people, flights beyond the pilot’s line of sight, package delivery, detect-and-avoid technology, and reliability and security of data links between pilot and aircraft.

Though the Program was technically announced less than a year ago, drone integration is a project both private industry and government entities have had on their mind over the last number of years. The trade group Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) has been watching drone trends for over five years and published an economic impact report in 2013 that states the “federal government tasked the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to determine how to integrate UAS into the NAS (national airspace system)” in 2012.

The AUVSI report predicted the UAS Integrated Pilot Program will create over 70,000 jobs and an economic impact over $13.6 billion in the first three years alone. Looking at the future of drones longer term, the AUVSI report also predicted drone integration will grow through 2025, creating more than 100,000 jobs and having an economic impact of $82 billion.

Since the announcement last fall, the DOT received hundreds of applications, but ultimately chose only ten locations to participate in the program.  The ten participants include universities, state agencies, tribes, and municipalities, and span across the country from Alaska to Florida. Closest to home, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) in Raleigh was one of three locations selected along the East Coast. [To see the full list of selected locations, click here.]

The NCDOT wasted no time exploring what resources are potentially at its finger tips and has already partnered with a number of companies in varying industries.  Some of the already announced partnerships include an agreement with the start-up Zipline to set up a network of UAS distribution centers to deliver blood and other medical supplies quicker, an agreement with North Carolina based PrecisionHawk to develop systems for tracking drones in flight, and an agreement with Apple to improve mapping imagery throughout the state.

* Killoran Long is a rising second-year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law and is the Business Law Program Fellow for the 2018-2019 school year.  She is a graduate of the University of South Carolina where she earned her degree in Political Science.  Before returning to law school, she spent over five years working in government relations in Washington. D.C.