Drone services edge closer with 10 new projects from major tech firms

The use of drones for delivery and other services came a step closer on Wednesday, May 9 with the announcement of 10 major projects across the country.

Announced by the U.S. Transportation Department, major firms including Microsoft, Apple, Qualcomm, FedEx, and Google-parent Alphabet will work with state, local, and tribal governments to proceed with drone development across a range of projects.

Notable by their absence, however, are both Amazon, which arguably launched the whole drone craze with its Prime Air drone delivery project, and Chinese firm DJI, a leading maker of consumer drones. Both companies were linked to proposals among 149 applicants but were not selected.

A myriad of businesses with an interest in drones have been clamoring for looser regulations so they can test how the technology might benefit their various operations, but up to now, regulators with an eye on safety have been moving forward with great caution.

The new government initiative, which was first announced by the Trump administration in October 2017 in a bid to accelerate the use of drones across a range of industries, will bring faster approval for drone trials that would ordinarily raise eyebrows among regulators. That means we’ll likely see for the first time commercial drones flying over crowded areas, out of the line of sight of the operator, and also at night, as part of trials to explore the viability of various sky-based services.

The 10 selected projects were revealed on Wednesday by U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. Some will explore different drone services while developing technologies such as ground-based, detect-and-avoid radar systems that integrate infrared imaging and satellite technology. Others will test the effectiveness of systems now under development such as air traffic control for unmanned aircraft.

Apple — a curious entry considering the company has shown little to no interest in drone technology until now — will work with North Carolina authorities to develop a drone system for gathering map data, while Qualcomm will team up with San Diego to develop drone platforms for various public safety, commercial, and emergency response applications.

FedEx will explore the use of drones to inspect aircraft at its hub in Tennessee, and also look into parts deliveries for aircraft, while drone company Flirtey, which has featured on Digital Trends’ pages many times, will embark on four projects around the country. One of these will be in Reno, Nevada, to develop a delivery system for life-saving medical equipment such as medical defibrillators in emergency situations in both urban and rural environments.

“Our country is on the verge of the most significant new development in aviation since the emergence of the jet age,” Chao said on Wednesday, according to Cnet. She added that it was now time to “create a path forward for the safe integration of drones if our country is to remain a global aviation leader and reap the safety and economic benefits drones have to offer.”

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