White House reveals major steps to integrate drones into US airspace

3 Aug 2016

The US is taking steps to figure out how drones can be used from everything from postal delivery to supporting first responders in search-and-rescue operations

Plans for the use of delivery drones and unmanned aircraft for search-and-rescue operations and fighting wildfires are included in key actions by the White House to integrate drones into US airspace in the coming years.

The White House revealed a number of actions during the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) workshop on Drones and the Future of Aviation to advance and celebrate the potential of unmanned aircraft systems.

Since US President Barack Obama took office in 2009, developments in aviation, sensing and software have powered a revolution in unmanned flight.

Future Human

In the next decade, the burgeoning commercial drone industry is projected to generate more than $82bn for the US economy and, by 2025, could support as many as 100,000 new jobs.

Earlier this summer, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s “Small UAS” rule announced plans to provide national guidelines for the operation of non-recreational unmanned aircraft under 55 pounds.

Investments in drone technology revealed

Among key actions decided by the OSTP was $35m in research funding provided by the National Science Foundation over the next five years to accelerate how drones could be used in monitoring and inspection of physical infrastructure, small disaster response, agricultural monitoring and the study of severe storms.

There was also a range of actions revealed by the US Department of the Interior to use drones to support search and rescue operations and improve government processes around technology adoption.

There was also a $5m down payment by the state of New York to support the growth of the emerging unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) industry across New York.

In addition to opening up the airspace for small UAS flight in February of 2015, the US President issued a Presidential Memorandum titled: Promoting Economic Competitiveness While Safeguarding Privacy, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in Domestic Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

Drones for the people

Next on the agenda will be safely integrating UAS into US airspace, including proposed regulation around operations of small unmanned aircraft over people, which are due to be published this winter.

NASA and the FAA are working together across a range of areas, including simulations and human-in-the-loop tests, as well as developing a consistent format for data to be shared.

The US Department of the Interior will deploy a training programme for the use of UAS in search and rescue operations and enable first-responders to deploy drones in critical life-saving situations.

They will also look at creating a process for prototyping and approving new payloads for drones by 2018, as well as enabling quicker access to new sensor technologies, faster data-processing capabilities and increasing data sharing of wildland fire locations.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will also look at how drones can be used for precise gravity measurement, augmenting the observational capabilities of ships.

Not only that, but the US Postal Service intends to publish its findings on how drone delivery can help the public.

Specifically, it is investigating how the public would view drone delivery if it were offered by the US Postal service and for delivery by commercial operations.

For example, Google parent Alphabet’s Project Wing will conduct experiments in a safe environment at one of six FAA-sanctioned test sites to lay the groundwork for legal drone deliveries in the US.

Key to this will be the installation of inexpensive radio transponders that would inform aircraft and controllers of the presence of other aircraft to avoid collisions.

Drone delivery image by Vector Fusion Art via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years