The drone future that we all know is coming—more drones, everywhere, ferrying our stuff to wherever we want it sent—isn’t coming just yet. Before flying robots can speckle the sky from coast to coast, the government needs to pass regulations that allow drones to fly beyond the line of sight of the operator, over densely populated areas, and at night—all things currently prohibited unless the drone operator gets a special waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration. Drones also have to be integrated into the national air traffic control system, which will have to help coordinate their movement and ensure the autonomous flyers don’t collide in the sky.
But before any of that gets off the ground, the U.S. Department of Transportation is giving the green light to 10 areas across the country to set up test sites for drones to do things like delivery, mosquito-killing, and security. Those sites were announced Wednesday—marking what many see as a milestone for an industry that thinks it will be worth more than $80 billion in the next seven years.
The selectees include the cities of San Diego and Reno; the Choctaw Nation in Durant, Oklahoma; Virginia Tech; the departments of transportation in Kansas, North Carolina, and North Dakota; the Lee County Mosquito Control District in Ft. Myers, Florida; the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority in Memphis, Tennessee; and the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.
The idea is that with these 10 programs, cities, tribes, and municipal agencies can partner with approved businesses to set their own rules for projects within prescribed areas and test out ways of safely integrating the technology into their airspace before broad federal laws are passed. That means the Department of Transportation in Kansas might give approval for Microsoft, which it’s collaborating with for its testing program to help build a drone tracking system for drone deliveries throughout the state. Virginia Tech is working with Alphabet, the parent company of Google, which has a drone initiative called Project Wing. In September 2016, Project Wing, with approval from the FAA, delivered burritos to students at Virginia Tech via drone. In Memphis, Tennessee, FedEx will be testing drones to deliver airplane parts at the airport. The test sites will be active for two and a half years and will share data they collect to the FAA and the U.S. Department of Transportation to help craft a federal plan for drone integration. Only after all this can non-recreational drones be a realistic commercial possibility in your town.
So if you’re planning a visit to Fairbanks, Alaska, or Raleigh, North Carolina, later this year—look up. You may well see a flying robot delivering a pizza.