Yesterday, the US Department of Transportation introduced its new Drone Integration Pilot Program that was initiated by an October 25, 2017, Presidential Memorandum to the Secretary of Transportation.

Leading the briefing was US Secretary of Transportation Elaine J. Chao. Secretary Chao was accompanied by Michael Kratsios (Deputy Assistant to the President, White House OSTP), Michael Huerta (FAA Administrator) and Dan Elwell (FAA Deputy Administrator). Also providing remarks from the private sector were Brian Wynne (Chairman, AUVSI) and David Herlong (Director, Smart Grid and Innovation, Florida Power and Light).

In summary, DOT and FAA are looking for State, Local and Tribal (SLT) Nation Communities to apply ("Declare Intent") to the FAA to become one of five selectees to demonstrate UAS technology that generates operational data and community feedback that FAA can use to inform new regulations to expand UAS integration in the national m (NAS) for the following types of UAS operations:

  • Flight Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS)
  • operations at night and
  • operations over people.

As expressed by Secretary Chao, DOT and the FAA are "looking for SLT community partnerships to generate data and best practices to inform new regulations to expand UAS integration."

Only public entities may apply. Non-public entities are encouraged to seek out appropriate and receptive public entities to partner with. Interested communities must file a Declaration of Intent within 20 days of publication of a Federal Register notice announcing the program. That notice is scheduled to be published on November 8, which would make November 28 the deadline for filing declarations. Note that a declaration is simply a placeholder for an applicant's full application, which will be due at a later date.

Following the official introduction of the program, a followup briefing providing more substantive detail was led by Dan Elwell (FAA Deputy Administrator), Earl Lawrence (FAA UAS Integration Office) and Charles Trippe (FAA Chief Counsel). It is summarized below. Future webinars will be conducted to further explain the program and process.

Goals of the program

  • FAA is looking for "scenario" based applications that will partner SLT entities with private sector UAS technology developers, operators and services.
  • FAA's goal is to achieve Beyond Visual Line-of-Sight (BVLOS), night and operation over people UAS operational experience and data. FAA is looking at innovation, safety and security.
  • FAA is encouraging the creation of public/private partnerships to foster innovation and push boundaries on how to safely integrate local UAS operations into communities and the NAS.

Application/selection process

  • Not later than 20 days after Federal Register publication, interested SLT communities must email FAA of their Declaration of Intent/Expression of Interest to be selected to participate in the program.
  • Non-public entities are encouraged to solicit partnerships with public entity applicants where there is a synergistic "fit" and can therefore become "partners" of the ultimate selectees.
  • Each timely e-mail applicant will be given access to an FAA on-line portal which provides the details on the program and application/selection process. The Declaration of Intent gives access to the Facebook page.
  • In coordination with FAA, the Secretary of Transportation will make the ultimate selections of the five "successful partnership" selectees. Depending on FAA resources, there may ultimately be more than five applicants selected, but for now the initial goal is to select five.

Evaluation criteria

  • As with the UAS Test Site selection process, FAA is looking for diversity of geography, airspace, climate and technology.
  • Each applicant selected will have to enter a Memorandum of Agreement (see a sample MOA here) with the FAA regarding, inter alia: required data exchanges (major FAA program goal ); any operational limitations required for safety; local community time, manner and place restrictions; and regulatory exemptions and/or waivers required to be obtained from FAA for the operational scenario.
  • FAA UASIO will work with applicants/selectees to "perfect" their application to identify needed exemptions/waivers, but clearly prefer and seems to strongly suggest that a successful application will already identify needed regulatory relief for the operation (as was done for Section 333 exemption petitions). It is most likely better to submit a complete application.
  • Selected projects must be totally funded by the selected public/private partnership.
  • FAA open to selecting an experimental test operation, or a commercial for-profit operation.

Suggestions for a successful application

  • According to Earl Lawrence, the FAA will review applications that allow it to investigate the following operational scenarios for expanded UAS operations:

Critical infrastructure/environmental

  • Bridge inspections
  • Pipeline/electrical transmission towers and lines inspections
  • Railroad right-of-way inspection
  • Shipping
  • Wildlife monitoring

Emergency and first responders/medical response

  • Accident and incident response and investigation
  • Medical supply missions
  • Search and rescue
  • Fire detection and firefighting response

Disaster response/relief and news reporting

  • Damage assessment
  • Insurance appraisals and damage evaluation
  • Reporting and news collection
  • Search and rescue
  • Property security

Transportation and hazardous materials safety

  • Railroad accidents
  • Traffic accidents

Also according to Earl Lawrence, the "FAA is open to all proposals – surprise us."

  • The FAA would entertain an application to demonstrate counter-drone technology.
  • The FAA Air Traffic Organization will be looking at data from selected projects to understand impacts on ATC.

Visit the main page of the Pilot Program here.