The Future Is Now: DOT Picks Top 10 Candidates to Usher In the Age of the Drones

By: Bridget Clerkin May 18, 2018
A collection of U.S. cities, tribes, and local governments have received Department of Transportation funding for drone projects meant to help with traffic, agriculture, and package delivery, among other uses.
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Autonomous cars may be all the rage, but when it comes to the future of transportation, the sky’s the limit.

Unbound by the two-dimensional world of the road, drones have been targeted for a wide range of societal applications, from delivering food to helping it grow. Despite all the promise the buzzy flying contraptions hold, little has been done to practically test the machines.

Until now.

Teaming up with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Department of Transportation (DOT) recently announced the finalists of its Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program. The Trump Administration launched the project last year to help usher in the new era of airborne transit.

At stake is the chance for the winners to lawfully break the rules in the name of experimentation. The FAA and DOT will grant the finalists permission to conduct tests beyond what current laws allow, including flying at night, over peoples’ heads, and out of operators’ lines of sight.

In exchange, the agencies are hoping to generate data, begin a broader conversation on the role drones should have in society, and start shaping more—and more informed—policies around the machines.

The program was originally meant to produce five winners. But, after receiving a deluge of applications—from over 200 organizations—the government pulled 10 of their top picks. They span a wide breadth of geographical locations and interests in the technology.

The varied group is representative of America itself. Native American tribes, technology firms, and a number of cities are included among its ranks. Ideas for the drones also run the gamut, from agriculture to infrastructure to public defense.

DOT officials don’t expect any immediate rule changes to stem from the experiments. Agency leaders are hoping the program will help push the U.S. forward in its embrace of the technology, as well as inspire other companies across the country to conduct more tests under existing FAA regulations.

Below are the 10 organizations that may well change the future. 

The Choctaw Nation of Durant, Oklahoma

The Native American tribe hopes to develop advanced weather infrastructure, including systems that can help those on the ground detect and avoid coming storms.

In order to do so, Choctaw Nation has received federal permission to test drones beyond the line of sight of their operators and to conduct night time experiments.

The information is expected to be applicable across a range of environments and geographic locations and could go on to help a number of industries, including agriculture, public safety, and infrastructure, according to a DOT report.

City of San Diego, California

San Diego city officials applied for the DOT drone program to test the aerial bots in a number of applications, including uses around the city's international border with Tijuana, Mexico.

America’s Finest City is already home to a number of high-tech government establishments, thanks to its large naval and Marine Corps presence. San Diego leaders hope to utilize much of that existing infrastructure to perform tests on brand new technology.

City administrators intend to use a number of indoor testing facilities, drone landing stations, and ports to tinker with the machines’ role in myriad industries. These range from package and food delivery to border protection and surveillance.

Communication technology will also be key. The San Diego experiments incorporate various cellular networks as well as AT&T’s national first responder service in order to develop tracking programs to help the drones integrate into the National Airspace System.

Innovation and Entrepreneurship Investment Authority

The Herndon, Virginia-based organization has friends in high places—and it’s not afraid to use them.

The Authority will embrace its pre-existing partnerships with Virginia Tech and NASA, among others, to conduct experiments on package delivery in urban and rural settings.

Specifically, group leaders hope to generate more data on the drones’ tracking and radar systems, mapping programs, and technology. This could allow the flying machines to detect and avoid debris in the air. DOT and FAA officials note the tests could offer important data across a large number of operating environments.

Kansas Department of Transportation

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Breadbasket of America hopes to focus on agricultural applications of the technology.

With federal permission to test its drones beyond an operator’s line of sight, the Kansas DOT intends to cultivate plans for precision farming operations and techniques.

The state agency will also use the machines to launch an unmanned traffic management system, utilizing its pre-existing suite of programs, as well as its community connections and experience, to work on developing satellite communications, geo-fencing, and detect and avoid programs for the flying technology.

Lee County Mosquito Control District

What Kansas is for wheat, Florida is for mosquitos. This Fort Myers-based organization is hoping drones will change all that.

The group intends to use the airborne bots for low-altitude surveillance and control of mosquito populations. They would use a 1,500-pound unmanned aircraft—as well as DOT permission to conduct its tests at night, over people, and out of an operator’s view—in order to do so.

Experiments would also serve to help develop several technological aspects of the emerging machines. These include ground-based radar systems, infrared imagery, and satellite communication.

Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority

Of course, drones—and mosquitos—aren’t the only things in the sky.

The Tennessee group wants to use the smaller flying machines to bolster airport operations such as surveillance and perimeter security. The bots would also aid in package delivery to the facility.

And with partners like FedEx and Agricenter International, the authority will be able to impact operations far beyond Memphis-Shelby County. The DOT estimates the group’s proposed experiments could help bring a $500 million annual benefit to the economy. The federal agency’s report, though, fails to go into any further detail.

North Carolina Department of Transportation

In the tradition of Southern hospitality, the Tar Heel State organization is hoping to bring the use of its drones to its local constituents.

The state agency’s proposal includes the creation of neighborhood drone delivery stations across a number of communities. This would allow small businesses to experiment with airborne deliveries.

In order to do so, the NC DOT obtained permission to fly the drones at night, over peoples’ heads, and beyond an operator’s view. All told, the experiments are anticipated to speed development on detect and avoid systems and several radar technologies. Additionally, it could build an understanding of how drones will fit into the business world.

North Dakota Department of Transportation

Information on the NDDOT’s specific proposal is scant, though the USDOT and FAA note that the plans will touch on a “wide variety of diverse operations.” These include external systems, programs impacting the drones themselves, and training requirements and procedures.

The state agency will also conduct tests at night and beyond the line of operator sight, in environments ranging from rural to urban, in order to learn more about how the machines will affect crop health monitoring, media reporting, and emergency responses.

City of Reno, Nevada

Reno officials plan to test drones dropping off emergency medical supplies. With its massive rural-urban interface zone, rescue workers sometimes have a hard time reaching distressed residents quickly.

The biggest little city in the world may be known for gambling, but it wants to greatly reduce the health risks for its residents in the age of the flying robots.

Reno officials want to focus exclusively on the drone-based delivery of life-saving medicine and equipment in time-sensitive situations.

Experiments will take place in both urban and rural locations, with a goal of saving between 28 and 34 lives each year, using just one drone operating within a 3-mile radius. To do so, the tests will focus on developing several aspects of the technology, including radar and weather mapping programs.

University of Alaska-Fairbanks

While the university will use its winning bid to probe into public safety applications for the machines, its main mission revolves around pipelines.

Specifically, the school hopes to focus on pipeline inspection and surveying, especially in remote areas or when difficult weather conditions arise.

In fact, the chance to test in such far-off locations was a major selling point for the DOT, which noted that the university would be privy to a climate and environment unlike any other awardee.

Still, the organization will focus on a number of technological aspects being examined by its fellow winners, including the development of detection and avoidance programs, satellite communication, and GPS and infrared imaging.

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