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Trump Administration taps projects to pilot expanded drone use

Projects in Virginia, Kansas and Nevada are among those the Trump administration named Wednesday, May 10, for a new program to sharply expand how drones can be used across the United States, seeking to accelerate growth in a booming sector with broad economic potential but also a range of security, safety and privacy concerns.

Among the winners in a nationwide competition is a group including Virginia Tech, which will work with Project Wing - part of Google's parent company Alphabet - Intel, AT&T and other firms on delivering packages, power-line inspections and emergency management operations. Also tapped was the city of Reno and the drone delivery company Flirtey, which is working to launch an automated external defibrillator delivery service for cardiac emergencies.

Uber will take on food delivery in San Diego's project, which also will include border protection, international commerce and autonomous vehicles, according to Department of Transportation officials.

Last October, President Donald Trump instructed Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to launch a pilot program creating new drone "innovation zones," and Chao on Wednesday followed through by announcing partnerships with 10 state, local and tribal governments. There was an outpouring of interest, and cities and states, working with numerous technology and drone firms, submitted 149 applications.

Government officials point to more than 1 million drones already flying in the nation's airspace, while industry groups have offered even higher sales numbers in recent years. Nimble and increasingly capable drones are generally barred from flying over people, at night or beyond the line of sight of the operator, and drone and technology industry backers are pushing to allow such missions on a broad basis.

Supporters of the administration's pilot program say a key goal is to glean on-the-ground insights from the cooperation between federal, state and local governments so that such expanded operations can become a regular feature of American life. But the effort also comes amid security, privacy, legal and quality-of-life concerns about the aircraft as policymakers scramble to keep up with the burgeoning industry.

The other government partners selected are the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma; the Kansas Department of Transportation; the Lee County Mosquito Control District in Fort Myers, Fla.; the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority; the North Carolina Department of Transportation; the North Dakota Department of Transportation; and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Reggie Govan, chief counsel at the Federal Aviation Administration during the Obama administration, said the program will give a dramatic boost to the pace of regulatory approvals. "Now we're on steroids," Govan said. The program also "represents an acknowledgment by the FAA of the need to rethink the roles and responsibilities of state and local governments" in managing drones in their communities, he added.

"I think the administration is to be complimented," he said.

But despite the many uses for drones, and what advocates say are big upsides, some officials continue to warn of potential problems, just as with other technologies that have been embraced.

"Look, military, hurricanes, wildfires, ag, rails, Department of Homeland Security - this can be as big as your imagination," Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., told a top FAA drone official in an exchange at a Senate session Tuesday, raising broader policy issues connected with Wednesday's announcement.

"This may be the only time you'll ever be compared to Facebook. But that's the same thing. It's a platform that was all positive - until somebody got ahold of it that wanted to do bad things with it. The same thing could happen here," Tester said.

Tester described how a fleet of firefighting helicopters had to be grounded when a drone interfered with their work last summer, noting the absence of reliable tools for identifying pilots. And he echoed concerns of residents and government security officials about unidentified drones circling overhead in threatening or intrusive ways.

"So I am a property owner that lives in rural America, and one of these damn drones is flying over my house. . . . Can I shoot them out of the air? Is that legal?" Tester asked.

Earl Lawrence, director of the FAA's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office, told the senator: "It is not legal, sir. We hope that we don't resort to shooting aircraft out of the air."

"So, what tools do I have for somebody that may be wanting to do something bad to me? I mean, if an airplane is circling above my house, I call you. You deal with it," Tester pressed.

"You've highlighted our key struggle and why we are asking for remote ID and working so hard on that - because we can't follow up and find out whether they're just clueless or criminal," Lawrence responded.

FAA officials say the era of anonymous drone flights must end if the social and economic benefits of the aircraft are to be achieved, and they are pushing for what amounts to electronic license plates to remotely identify drones and locate their pilots.

A new regulatory notice said the Department of Transportation is considering a rule that could require "several operational limitations, airspace restrictions, hardware requirements, and associated identification or tracking technologies" to address "safety and security concerns from the homeland security, federal law enforcement, and national defense communities."

A second notice said the agency is pursuing a regulatory rollback that "would provide relief from certain operational restrictions" on drones flying over people, a key goal of industry.

There were some were some notable names that didn't make the cut for the pilot program.

Chinese drone manufacturer DJI, which dominates the U.S. market, was not among the selectees, the company said.

"We partnered on about a dozen applications, and given the large number of applicants, the odds were low for any particular company's applications to be chosen," DJI spokesman Adam Lisberg said. He said the company offered congratulations and would "be happy to assist any of them with hardware, software or technical assistance."

Amazon, whose chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post, also was not among the winners.

Chao said "there are no losers in today's announcement," adding that she has asked the FAA to "reach out to many of these other applicants" in the coming months and that they can continue to pursue their projects directly, outside the context of the pilot program.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said the announcements are "an important step in again putting the U.S. in the lead" in drone technology, and that "Virginia will be at the forefront of this revolution."

"We need to be leaders - not laggards - in safely integrating it into our daily lives," Warner said.

The Virginia project, a partnership with numerous government agencies, also will include activities not far from the nation's capital, in Loudoun County, project organizers said. The urban and suburban parts of the county will provide a good counterpoint to the more rural areas covered by the state's effort, project leader Mark Blanks said. That would eventually include package deliveries, he said.

The other partnering Virginia counties are Buckingham, Cumberland, Montgomery, Prince Edward and Wise.

Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, said FAA officials have repeatedly emphasized the value of the data they will be able to collect from the pilot program.

"All these experiments will really build up a library of data they can use to build out the regulations they currently have in place," Gettinger said.

 Story by Michael Laris. Laris writes about the transformation of the U.S. transportation system. He previously covered government accountability and was a reporter based in Beijing.
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