The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recognizes that unmanned aircraft systems –“UAS,” or more popularly, “drones”— are the fastest growing segment of aviation. In the United States, people are flying these aircraft for fun or are performing commercial operations. Drones enable people to go places and do things that might otherwise be dangerous, and they often save money and time.
The FAA is dedicated to safely and fully integrating this innovative technology into America’s national airspace. The agency and its government and industry partners have two key initiatives underway that will help make the routine use of drones a reality.
The UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP)
Since it began in 2017, the UAS Integration Pilot Program has brought state, local, and tribal governments together with private sector entities, such as drone operators and manufacturers, to accelerate safe drone integration. The overarching goal of the IPP is to help the U.S. Department of Transportation and the FAA to craft new rules, policy and guidance that support more complex low-altitude operations. Specifically, the program is:
- Identifying ways to balance local and national interests related to drone integration
- Improving communications with local, state and tribal jurisdictions
- Addressing security and privacy risks
- Accelerating the approval of operations that currently require special authorizations
- Engaging people where they live and work to understand community sentiment
In November 2017, the FAA solicited applications from state, local and tribal governments to participate in the IPP for a three-year period. Those entities enlisted the help of industry, academic and other government partners to support their proposed operations. In May 2018, the agency selected 10 Lead Participants from 149 applications submitted, to represent a variety of operations, geographic locations and government partners.
The IPP Lead Participants conducted their first operations in August and September 2018 and have achieved many successful milestones since then. The state, local and tribal governments have all worked closely with their industry partners to tackle challenges to safe and secure integration, including night operations, flights over people, operations beyond the pilot's line of sight, package delivery, detect-and-avoid technologies, remote identification and the reliability and security of data links between pilot and aircraft. The data the FAA has collected during the program will help inform future policy, guidance and rulemaking. It already has influenced current and future activities in the areas of package delivery, emergency management, disaster damage assessment, agricultural support and infrastructure inspections.
One of the IPP’s objectives is to determine community acceptance of drones operating near their neighborhoods and businesses. Many of the lead participants are conducting surveys to gauge community sentiment, and all of them have engaged their communities through public meetings, briefings, website updates and traditional and social media. Overall, the response has been generally positive.
The achievements include:
- As part of the San Diego IPP team, the Chula Vista, Calif., Police Department is successfully using drones to give first responders an early assessment of the scene, so they know what to expect when they respond to 911 calls. The Drone as First Responder program has operated more than 1,300 flights, has significantly improved response times and has led to many arrests.
- UPS Flight Forward and Matternet are routinely using drones to deliver medical lab material from one building to another across the large WakeMed medical complex in Raleigh, part of the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s IPP program. The team plans to begin similar operations at a medical complex in San Diego.
- The FAA has issued air carrier certificates to UPS Flight Forward and Wing Aviation, LLC to operate drones for package delivery.
- Wing is routinely delivering packages in Christiansburg, VA, in partnership with FedEx, Walgreens and local gift shop Sugar Magnolia, as part of the Virginia IPP team.
- The North Carolina and North Dakota Departments of Transportation (DOT) have used drones to survey damage in the wake of natural disasters such as hurricanes and flooding, to determine the extent of the damage and inform decisions about reopening roads and bridges.
- The University of Alaska Fairbanks, the North Dakota DOT and the Kansas DOT have conducted flights beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight to inspect pipelines and powerlines.
Most of the technical data the Lead Participants have collected in their IPP flights relates to how well their drones actually perform compared to original plans. The data includes information about flight paths, communications connectivity, and any deviations from original plans. Once the participants collect and report the data, the FAA will be able to see how well their risk mitigations worked. This information is vital to developing future FAA regulations and guidance on safe and secure drone use.