The Integrated Pilot Program – great balance but some frustration

The decision as to which 10 programmes would be chosen as the US Department of Transportation’s Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Integration Pilot Program (IPP) standard bearers was always going to be driven by the need to carefully balance the interests of all stakeholders.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) programme overview text:

“The final awardees will evaluate a host of operational concepts, including night operations, flights over people and beyond the pilot’s line of sight, package delivery, detect-and-avoid technologies and the reliability and security of data links between pilot and aircraft. Fields that could see immediate opportunities from the program include commerce, photography, emergency management, agricultural support and infrastructure inspections.”

The drone industry’s preference would be to prioritise programmes which would move beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) delivery operations from the testing phase to actual commercial operations as quickly as possible. But it is also important that the roles of Cities, States and community organisations in framing operational regulations will have to be carefully understood. Technologies and procedures need to be trialled in a near-operational context, with federal safety organisations understanding the safety cases and the back-up requirements when things go wrong.

But by spreading the range of pilot projects across the entire gamut of future drone operations – smart city autonomous delivery services, extreme weather operations, perimeter security and so on (see table one) – it will mean that most US commercial drone operators will still not be able to plan for revenue-generating BVLOS operations until 2021/2022 at the earliest, unless the FAA feels it can suddenly speed up its authorisation rate for BVLOS flights from the current 1% mark as a result of early safety-case evidence from the three BVLOS IPP programmes chosen.

Elsewhere in the world, air navigation service providers (ANSPs) have taken a more linear approach to developing the regulations and UTM systems to support more complex commercial drone operations – in Europe, some ANSPs expect the first commercial BVLOS drone flights to take place in 2020, around two years ahead of their US colleagues. BVLOS first and then complex operations involving manned and unmanned aircraft later.

This slight push-back to the commercial drone sector – symbolised by the fact Amazon was not picked for any of these pilot programmes – should not perhaps be surprising, given the sheer weight of conflicting interests involved. There are BVLOS operations targeted for research in the programme, but mainly medical supply companies such as  Zipline, which makes medical supply deliveries by drone in Africa and Flirtey, which is working with four authorities, delivering defibrillators. FedEx is involved – but only in the delivery of aircraft parts to maintenance crews.

The big winner is AirMap a UTM technology partner for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, City of Reno, City of San Diego, Kansas Department of Transportation, North Carolina Department of Transportation, North Dakota Department of Transportation. Unifly, meanwhile, is a partner in projects led by the North Dakota Department of Transportation and the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

 

Among other UTM service providers Vigilant Aerospace is providing detect-and-avoid and airspace management solutions using its FlightHorizon product to two of the ten winning IPP projects: North Dakota Department of Transportation and the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, while PrecisionHawk Inc has been selected to participate with its home state of North Carolina, to accelerate the testing of currently restricted UAS operations, including BVLOS flights.

Hazon Solutions and Intel will be providing UTM elements as part of the Virginia winning consortium, which also comprises Google’s sister company, Project Wing, AT&T, Airbus Aerial, State Farm, Dominion Energy and Sinclair Broadcast Group.

 

Sponsoring project leaders Proposal description Project highlights and benefits
Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Durant, OK The proposal focuses on agricultural, public safety and infrastructure inspections, with planned Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations over people and night time operations. The proposal highlights plans to invest in mobile ground-based detect and avoid radars and advanced weather infrastructure. The awardee, along with partners CNN and the Green Valley Farms Living Laboratory, has an aggressive 90-day schedule for high-profile Extended Visual Line of Sight (EVLOS) and night operations. The data obtained from these operations will be broadly applicable, and could extend to a wide range of operations and geographical locations.
City of San Diego, CA The proposal focuses on border protection and package delivery of food, with a secondary focus on international commerce, Smart City/autonomous vehicle interoperability and surveillance. The awardee will conduct UAS operations and examine new technologies not in use today by leveraging its indoor testing facilities and various drone landing stations and ports. The proposal would employ a variety of available communications technologies, including 5G test networks and the 4G LTE cellular network and AT&T’s national first responder network authority (FirstNet.) These UAS operations will provide solid data to improve UAS specific ID & Tracking systems, necessary for UAS integration into the National Airspace System.
Innovation and Entrepreneurship Investment Authority, Herndon, VA The proposal seeks to facilitate package delivery in rural and urban settings. Its includes the use of enabling technologies such as detect and avoid, Identification and tracking, radar systems, and mapping tools. The awardee seeks to leverage existing expertise through partnerships with the Virginia Tech UAS Test Site, NASA, and stakeholders with cyber security expertise. Data obtained through these diverse operations and varied operating environments will provide significant, scalable benefits to the agency and industry.
Kansas Department of Transportation, Topeka, KS The proposal deploys UAS to support beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations in rural communities. It seeks to leverage a state-wide unmanned traffic management system to facilitate precision agriculture operations. Operations will use a range of technologies, such as detect and avoid, ADS-B, satellite communications and geo-fencing. The program will use existing in-state resources such as fibre optic networks and UAS Traffic Management (UTM). The awardee has a robust community involvement plan that supports the diverse operations that are planned.

 

Lee County Mosquito Control District, Ft. Myers, FL The proposal focuses on low-altitude aerial applications to control/survey the mosquito population using a 1500-lb. UAS. The proposal includes scalable solutions that take into account a broad range of current and future technologies that include ground-based detect and avoid radar systems that would integrate ADS-B, infrared imaging and satellite technology. The proposal includes night operations, BVLOS and operations over people.
Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, Memphis, TN

 

The proposal focuses on the inspection of FedEx aircraft and autonomous operations that support airport operations such as perimeter security surveillance and package delivery. Proposed operations include working with a UTM concept that would also work with manned air traffic. Teaming with FedEx and Agricenter International, the awardee would support an integrated environment of urban, airport, private property and farmland that would yield an estimated $500 million annual benefit to the economy. Data collected would not only serve UAS, but work with normal air traffic truly advancing integration.
North Carolina Department of Transportation, Raleigh, NC The proposal seeks to test localized package delivery within a defined airspace by establishing drone delivery stations in local communities. This approach enables small businesses to utilize this delivery platform for commercial purposes. The proposal seeks to operate over human beings, beyond visual line of sight and at night, and seeks to use a variety of technological tools to enable these advanced operations. Tools include ADS-B, detect and avoid technologies, UTM and radar technologies. The data collected from these diverse operations will significantly enhance safe UAS integration into the National Airspace System.
North Dakota Department of Transportation, Bismarck, ND The proposal includes a wide variety of diverse operations that incorporate advanced technologies that seek to expand UAS operations at night and Beyond Visual Line of Sight. The proposal will focus on data from four criteria: external systems, aircraft system technologies, training requirements, and processes and procedures. Operations will be in multiple types of airspaces ranging from rural to urban areas. Working with experienced UAS research partners will lead to scalable operations for a multitude of UAS industries including linear infrastructure inspections, crop health monitoring, and media reporting and emergency response.
The City of Reno, NV The proposal focuses on the time-sensitive delivery of life-saving medical equipment, such as medical defibrillators in emergency situations in both urban and rural environments The awardee will integrate additional infrastructure such as radar and weather data in order to expand the UAS capability so it could save up to 28-34 lives per year, using one drone in a three-mile city radius. This proposal considers a nationwide scalable model for medical delivery operations and has several commercial medical partners.
University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK The proposal’s primary focus is pipeline inspection and surveying in remote areas and harsh climatic conditions, but it has proposed a broad range of other types of operations in urban and rural areas, ranging from public safety to UAS detection. The awardee uses enabling technologies that include collision avoidance, detect and avoid day and night, ADS-B, differential GPS, satellite services, infrared imaging and UTM. Operations in remote areas provide a unique opportunity to evaluate data on several advanced technologies. The unique climate and operating environment also provide an opportunity not available to other awardees.

 

By Philip Butterworth-Hayes

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