TECHNOLOGY

Apple, Uber Among Companies Approved for Federal Drone Pilot Program

The Federal Aviation Administration announced that 10 states across the U.S. were approved to launch a three-year commercial drone pilot program to explore the future of drone delivery with help from private companies.

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BY Will Yakowicz - 11 May 2018

Apple, Uber Among Companies Approved for Federal Drone Pilot Program

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

In the near future, if you're vacationing in the Outer Banks, North Carolina and you need an emergency blood transfusion, a drone could buzz over from the mainland and drop off a pint at the hospital or medical clinic where you're laid up.

Zipline, a medical drone delivery startup headquartered in San Francisco, has been operating a nationwide emergency blood delivery service in Rwanda for the past two years. The startup has been waiting to bring the model to the U.S., but the Federal Aviation Administration's restrictive rules, which ban flying drones over populated areas and beyond line of sight from the pilot, prevented Zipline and other delivery drone companies from operating in the U.S. But on Wednesday, the FAA announced that 10 U.S. states have been approved to launch a three-year pilot program, easing the current rules in an effort to jumpstart the commercial drone industry in the U.S.

Alphabet, Apple, Airbus, FedEx, Intel, Microsoft, Uber, and Qualcomm are among the winners, along with smaller companies like Zipline, Flirtey, and PrecisionHawk. Amazon, which has multiple patents for drone delivery, was not approved to participate in the program, Reuters reports. China-based DJI, the world's largest drone manufacturer, also did not make the cut.

During the press conference, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced that the 10 pilot projects will test different commercial drone applications to assess how the federal government should regulate nationwide commercial use.

The companies that are part of the pilot range from Flirtey, which will be airdropping defibrillators in Reno, to FedEx, which will deliver airplane parts to Memphis International Airport. The announcement is a big deal for the U.S. drone industry because the FAA's strict rules have hamstrung commercial use while other countries around the world have already implemented their own drone delivery programs.

"Our country is on the verge of the most significant new development in aviation since the emergence of the jet age," Chao said at a press conference. "We've got to create a path forward for the safe integration of drones if our country its to remain a global aviation leader and reap the safety and economic benefits drones have to offer."

The Integration Pilot Program, which President Donald Trump made a White House initiative last October, is asking states and local governments to take on the development and management of the drone programs in partnership with private companies. The 10 selectees include the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, San Diego, Virginia, Kansas, Florida, Tennessee, North Dakota, Nevada, and Alaska.

Basil Yap, the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle program manager at North Carolina's Transportation Department, says the state will launch the program in Raleigh, Charlotte, and the Outer Banks. Yap says North Carolina teamed up with medical delivery drone companies Matternet and Zipline, Israeli food delivery drone company Flytrex, drone air traffic management software company Precision Hawk and Airmap, radar company Fortem Technologies, T-Mobile, Apple, and WakeMed Healthcare.

The FAA's tight restrictions are still in place on a national level, so North Carolina and the nine other states still need to submit a safety plan and waiver request to the FAA to fly drones outside of the established regulations.

"We won't see routine flights for a while, says Yap. "The program is three years long and by the end we hope to see routine package delivery out of line of sight and over people and at night."

Zipline's CEO, Keller Rinaudo, says he is looking forward to replicating the same system he set up in Rwanda in North Carolina.

"[This program] is an important first step towards bringing Zipline's lifesaving drone delivery technology to the United States," he says.