U.S. DOT selects 10 projects for UAS integration program

By Patrick C. Miller | May 16, 2018

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has named 10 projects selected to take part in the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program in which the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will partner with the private sector and local, state and tribal governments.

Announced by the Trump administration last October, the initiative enables participants to explore safe ways to integrate drone operations into the national airspace. In making the announcement, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao said, “Instead of a dictate from Washington, this program takes another approach. It allows interested communities to test drones in ways that they’re comfortable with. This will help demonstrate how drones can safely perform a wide range of activities at different times of the day and across a variety of locations and geographies.”

The 10 selectees are:

•           Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Durant, Oklahoma
•           City of San Diego, California
•           Virginia Tech Center for Innovative Technology, Herndon, Virginia
•           Kansas Department of Transportation, Topeka
•           Lee County Mosquito Control District, Ft. Myers, Florida
•           Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, Memphis, Tennessee
•           North Carolina Department of Transportation, Raleigh
•           North Dakota Department of Transportation, Bismarck
•           City of Reno, Nevada
•           University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Fairbanks

Chao also said DOT had submitted two new proposed rulemakings on drones to the White House Office of Management and Budget. “They will ask for public comment for proposals on expanded operations of small drones and how to best approach security concerns,” she said. “And there will be more because we will be seeking more information.”

DOT and the FAA evaluated each of the 149 proposals received according to requirements. The 10 final selectees will work with the FAA to refine their operational concepts through memorandums of agreement (MOA). The MOAs will establish the parties’ responsibilities, describe specific concepts of operations they will undertake, establish data-sharing requirements and specify that no federal funds will be spent on the program.

Over the next two and a half years, the selectees will collect drone data involving night operations, flights over people and beyond the pilot’s line of sight, package delivery, detect-and-avoid technologies and the reliability and security of data links between pilot and aircraft. The data will help the DOT and FAA craft new rules that allow more complex low-altitude operations, identify ways to balance local and national interests related to UAS integration, improve communications with local, state and tribal jurisdictions, address security and privacy risks and accelerate the approval of operations that currently require special authorizations.

Chao said the response from communities all across the country was overwhelming. “We went looking for good ideas and we found great ones,” she said. “The projects announced today will help open the door for drone applications in agriculture, in commerce, in healthcare, in emergency response, disaster assistance and even human transportation.”

Chao also left open the possibility that dozens of additional projects from among the 149 applicants could be selected to proceed under current rules under waivers granted by the FAA. “I have asked the FAA to reach out to many of these other applicants in the coming months and weeks to talk about how they may be able to move forward with their proposals,” she said.  

Below is a summary of each of the 10 projects selected by DOT to work with the FAA.

Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Durant, Oklahoma
The project will focus on agricultural, public safety and infrastructure inspections with nighttime operations and beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) flights planned over people. Plans are to invest in mobile ground-based detect-and-avoid radars and advanced weather infrastructure. The Choctaw Nation, along with partners CNN and the Green Valley Farms Living Laboratory, have a 90-day schedule for high-profile extended visual line-of-sight (EVLOS) and night operations. The data obtained from the operations will be broadly applicable and could extend to a wide range of operations and geographical locations.

City of San Diego, California
The project will focus on border protection and package delivery of food with a secondary focus on international commerce, Smart City/autonomous vehicle interoperability and surveillance. The city will conduct UAS operations and examine new technologies not currently in use by leveraging its indoor testing facilities and various drone landing stations and ports. The project will employ a variety of available communications technologies, including 5G test networks and the 4G LTE cellular network and AT&T's national first responder network authority (FirstNet.) The UAS operations will provide data to improve UAS-specific identification and tracking systems necessary for UAS integration into the national airspace system.

Innovation and Entrepreneurship Investment Authority, Herndon, Virginia
The project will facilitate package delivery in rural and urban settings. It includes the use of enabling technologies, such as detect and avoid, identification and tracking, radar systems and mapping tools. The agency plans to leverage expertise through partnerships with the Virginia Tech UAS Test Site, NASA and stakeholders with cyber security expertise. Data obtained through these diverse operations and varied operating environments will provide significant, scalable benefits to the agency and industry.

Kansas Department of Transportation, Topeka
The project deploys UAS to support BVLOS operations in rural communities, leveraging a statewide UTM system to facilitate precision agriculture operations. Operations will use a range of technologies, such as detect-and-avoid, ADS-B, satellite communications and geo-fencing. The project will use in-state resources, such as fiber optic networks and UTM. The department has a community involvement plan that supports diverse operations.

Lee County Mosquito Control District, Fort Myers, Florida
The project focuses on low-altitude aerial applications to control and monitor the mosquito population using a 1,500-pound UAS. Scalable solutions that consider a broad range of current and future technologies will include ground-based detect-and-avoid radar systems that integrate ADS-B, infrared imaging and satellite technology. Night operations, BVLOS and flights over people are planned.

Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, Memphis, Tennessee
The project focuses on the inspection of FedEx aircraft and autonomous flights in support of airport operations such as perimeter security surveillance and package delivery. Proposed operations include working with a UTM concept in concert with manned air traffic. Teaming with FedEx and Agricenter International, the project supports an integrated environment of urban, airport, private property and farmland expected to yield an estimated $500 million annual benefit to the economy. Data collected would serve UAS and work with normal air traffic to advance integration.

North Carolina Department of Transportation, Raleigh
The project will test localized package delivery within a defined airspace by establishing drone delivery stations in local communities. This approach enables small businesses to use this delivery platform for commercial purposes. The project plans to operate over people, BVLOS and at night, using a variety of technological tools to enable advanced operations. Tools include ADS-B, detect-and-avoid technologies, UTM and radar technologies. Data collected from the operations will enhance safe UAS integration into the national airspace system.

North Dakota Department of Transportation, Bismarck
The project features a wide variety of operations that incorporate advanced technologies, seeking to expand UAS operations at night and BVLOS. It focuses on data from four criteria: external systems, aircraft system technologies, training requirements and processes and procedures. Flight will take place in multiple types of airspace, ranging from rural to urban areas. Experienced UAS research partners should lead to scalable operations a number of UAS industries, including linear infrastructure inspections, crop health monitoring, media reporting and emergency response.

The City of Reno, Nevada
The project’s focus is on the time-sensitive delivery of life-saving medical equipment, such as medical defibrillators in emergency situations in both urban and rural environments. The city will integrate additional infrastructure—such as radar and weather data—to expand the UAS capability. It’s expected to save 28 to 34 lives per year, using one drone in a three-mile city radius. The project will study a nationwide scalable model for medical delivery operations and has several commercial medical partners.

University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Fairbanks
The project will focus on pipeline inspection and surveying in remote areas and harsh climatic conditions. In addition, other types of operations are proposed in urban and rural areas, ranging from public safety to UAS detection. The university uses technologies that include collision avoidance, detect and avoid day and night, ADS-B, differential GPS, satellite services, infrared imaging and UTM. Operations in remote areas under harsh climate conditions provide an opportunity to evaluate data on several advanced technologies.