At Memphis International Airport, drones may soon be inspecting planes and delivering airplane parts for FedEx Corp. In Reno, Nevada, they will test airlifting life-saving defibrillators to patients. And customers in Virginia could get goods they ordered from Alphabet Inc.’s flying devices.
A who’s who of technology and aviation companies won US approval on May 9 to push the edge of the envelope in drone flights, from testing people’s tolerance for delivery devices hovering over their rooftops to ensuring farmers’ drones won’t hit crop dusters.
In the most far-reaching test programme to date for burgeoning drone commerce, the Department of Transportation announced the selection of 10 state, local and tribal governments—in partnership with companies that include Intel Corp., Uber Technologies Inc. and Qualcomm Inc.—as social and scientific test areas.
“The enthusiastic response to our request for applications demonstrated the many innovative technological and operational solutions already on the horizon,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said.
The governments hosting the pilot projects are San Diego; North Carolina; Topeka, Kansas; Reno; Fairbanks, Alaska; the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma; Virginia; North Dakota; Memphis; and Lee County Mosquito Control District in Florida. In one of the more unusual proposals, Lee County wants to use a 1,500-pound (680-kilo) drone to control the airborne pests.
The programme was pushed by President Donald Trump’s White House as a way to speed approvals of more far-ranging unmanned flight operations.
Ambitions Take Flight The Integration Pilot Program, as it’s called, has created palpable enthusiasm in the drone world, from startups including Flirtey Inc. and AirMap Inc. to established companies developing unmanned devices like Amazon.com Inc., which wants to deliver packages to people’s homes.
Flirtey, which has tested a variety of ways to deliver goods using small drones, is part of a test programme operated by Reno, along with three other programme winners.
Drones carrying defibrillators to heart attack victims have the potential to save many lives, said Matthew Sweeny, Flirtey’s chief executive officer and founder.
The unmanned devices will be used for multiple purposes in Memphis, said Scott Brockman, president of Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority.
Among them will be to inspect hard-to-reach infrastructure and to inspect runways to ensure they are clear of debris. Memphis International is the hub for operations by FedEx, which is a partner in the programme.
Fedex, units of General Electric Co. and Intel are participating in a team led by the Memphis airport that proposes flying beyond line of sight, at night and over people.
They will deliver small aircraft parts in a designated area of the airport, inspect aircraft and provide emergency response, according to a statement.
In Virginia, drones operated by Alphabet’s Project Wing will be used to deliver goods to various communities and then researchers will get feedback from local residents. The data can be used to help develop regulations allowing widespread and routine deliveries sometime in the future.
Uber is working with San Diego, which wants to create drone landing stations and ports, according to a fact sheet released by DOT. Uber has announced plans to fly people on battery powered taxis, though the development and approvals are still years away and there’s no mention of attempting such operations under the current programme.
Uber to offer food delivery by drone in under 30 minutes
Uber Technologies Inc. plans to deliver food by drone in San Diego as part of a wide-reaching commercial test program approved by the federal government, said Dara Khosrowshahi, the CEO.
Khosrowshahi said people should expect meal delivery in five to 30 minutes, depending on whether it comes from a drone or a human. “Push a button and get food on your doorstep,” he said.
Uber is now the largest food delivery business in the world, Khosrowshahi told the crowd during an on-stage interview with Bloomberg at an Uber conference in Los Angeles.
The US Transportation Department said it chose 10 state, local and tribal governments and a handful of companies, including Alphabet Inc., FedEx Corp., Intel Corp., Qualcomm Inc. and Uber, to work together on commercial drone testing.
Hamburgers via drone was among a range of topics that Khosrowshahi touched on during the interview at the company’s flying car conference, Uber Elevate. While the CEO said he’d joined Uber last year as a skeptic of the flying car programme, he eventually decided to support the futuristic endeavour. “Uber can’t just be about cars,” he said. “It has to be about mobility.”
Uber itself isn’t building flying cars. Instead, it’s striking partnerships with companies, along with government agencies like NASA and the US Army, with the hope that pilot programmes will begin in 2020.
Talk of flying cars — which are many years away from moving around actual customers, if ever — offered a diversion from Uber’s embattled autonomous-car programme.