Drones: From Pilot Program to Permanent Fixture

Overview The new Integration Pilot Program, and programs like it, are bringing together drone companies to create rules that advance drone standing in the National Airspace System.

From emergency response and infrastructure maintenance to consumer deliveries and general hobbyist use, there is an ever-growing list of use cases for drones.

A growing drone market, and a desire by hobbyists and commercial enterprises alike for more regular drone use, has led the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to work toward integrating drones into the existing National Airspace System.

Full integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) would allow businesses, entrepreneurs, professionals and hobbyists across the country to regularly use drones in all industries.

Programs such as the UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP) have helped drive the process of assimilation into the National Airspace System.


The Runway to Integration

Launched in 2017, the IPP aims to further the development of drone regulations and policy through practical applications. The program brings together different levels of government and private-sector entities that use drones for ongoing communication and collaboration, resulting in documentation for how UAS could be used within the National Airspace System and what conditions need to be considered.

It may seem like things are not going as quickly as they need to be, but we're trying to develop a system that will work for all stakeholders.

Steve Dickson
Administrator, FAA

For Steve Dickson, administrator of the FAA, it is imperative that the agency stays ahead of drone changes and takes all interests into account, including those unrelated to safety. Pilot programs allow for the relevant players to work through issues and develop concepts that will act as building blocks for drones’ integration with the National Airspace System.

“It may seem like things are not going as quickly as they need to be, but we're trying to develop a system that will work for all stakeholders,” Dickson said on the CES Tech Talk podcast. “If you can do it in the United States, you can do it anywhere else in the world.”


Showing Drone Safety with Delivery, Damage and Inspection Drones

Mark Blanks, director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, has seen the benefits of the IPP firsthand. A member of the IPP and a UAS test site, Virginia Tech has three major drone projects in its program:

  • Wing – A sister company of Google, Wing works on drone package handling, delivering products from local businesses

  • State Farm – State Farm partners with companies and uses drones to work on post-event damage assessment

  • Dominion Energy – Virginia Tech partners with Dominion Energy to use drones in linear infrastructure inspection on power lines

These partnerships are already leading to the green-lighting of regular drone use for certain circumstances.

For example, through the State Farm partnership, Blanks’s team was able to build a safety case that resulted in State Farm winning approval to conduct damage assessments with drones flying anywhere in the country, over people and beyond line of sight.

Blanks echoes Dickson, agreeing that IPP value comes from the open communication.

“A two-way communication dialogue, support from their side and our side, [is important to] build together a safety case for each operation that can be shown to be safe,” Blanks said.

Listen to the full "Making Space for Drones" episode on the CES Tech Talk podcast.

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