Feds Lay out Details of New Drone Integration Pilot Program

U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) officials have released more details of the new Drone Integration Pilot Program, a pilot initiative to safely test and validate advanced operations through partnerships across the country and with oversight from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). 

Joined by drone operators; industry stakeholders; members of the public; law enforcement and first responders; and local, state, tribal and federal officials in Washington, D.C., DOT Secretary Elaine Chao shared the details in an event held this afternoon.

A Federal Register notice lays out the time frame, requirements and goals of the new program, which will pair local, state and tribal entities with private-sector players in the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) industry to develop and deploy new operational concepts that are not currently in widespread use, according to the DOT. The key first step in the program is for government officials to complete a Notice of Intent, signifying their intention to complete a full program application.

Chao told attendees that the program application and deployment process is expected to move quickly.

“The drone pilot program will accelerate the safe integration of drones into our airspace by creating new partnerships between local governments, the FAA and private drone operators,” she said. “These partnerships will allow local communities to experiment with new technologies like package delivery, emergency drone inspections and more – on terms that work for them and in ways that support a unified and safe airspace.”

According to the DOT, applicants will have 20 days from the date of publication of the notice in the Federal Register to complete a Notice of Intent, followed by the requirement that they complete an application through the FAA/UAS Portal within 57 days of the publication in the Federal Register. Within 180 days, initial program applicants who receive approval could begin deploying drones under the limitations coordinated and agreed to with the FAA. The program will last for three years.

The agency says the program was created to help tackle the most significant challenges in integrating drones into national airspace while reducing risks to public safety and security. It is also designed to provide greater regulatory certainty and stability to local governments and communities.

The pilot program will evaluate a variety of operational concepts, including night operations, flights over people, flights beyond the pilot’s line of sight, package delivery, detect-and-avoid technologies, counter-UAS operations, reliability and security of data links between pilot and aircraft, and local management of UAS operations (subject to FAA oversight).

“This program will put community and industry partnerships at the leading edge of aviation technology,” said Michael Huerta, FAA administrator. “What we learn through testing operational concepts in these communities will be invaluable and give us clarity on rules that ensure safety and continued innovation.”

“More and more businesses and public safety providers are embracing UAS to expand and enhance their service offerings,” said Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “This growing demand illustrates a new renaissance in aviation and technology, which requires sustained collaboration and support by government at all levels.”

“Creativity and innovation are part of the great genius of America – one of its hallmarks,” added Chao. “We must safeguard and nurture this legacy. The integration of drones into our national airspace will be the biggest technical challenge to aviation since the beginning of the Jet Age. This program will help prepare the way for this new technology and usher in a new era of aviation service, accessibility and capability.”

After evaluating all the applications, the DOT will select a minimum of five partnerships. Full details of the Federal Register notice and application process can be found here.

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