The FAA has been taking methodical steps on the path toward commercial drone usage. Some in the industry groan that it's been dragging its feet.
But these last couple weeks saw a flurry of firsts in the U.S. drone sector, including the first approved commercial drone flights beyond line of sight and approval for limited drone delivery in suburban North Carolina.
The waivers are part of the FAA's UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP), which is designed to bring state, local, and tribal governments together with drone operators and manufacturers to accelerate safe commercial drone integration. The program is being seen within the sector as something of a springboard for drone manufacturers.
Israeli company Flytrex, for example, has teamed up with drone services company Causey Aviation Unmanned, Inc. to begin food deliveries by drone in Holly Springs, North Carolina. Flytrex will soon begin on-demand, unmanned food delivery via commercial drones for local residents.
"Regulation is crucial to the future of widespread drone delivery, both for safe operations and public acceptance, which is why we have been working diligently with the FAA to adhere to the highest standards of safety," says Yariv Bash, CEO, and Co-Founder of Flytrex. "We continually strive to reach new heights when it comes to advancing commercial drone use around the world. That is why we are thrilled to have been chosen to work so closely with the FAA to help this pilot take off. This is just the beginning as we expand the possibilities of sky-bound delivery."
The Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research recently validated Flytrex's self-triggered parachute recovery system.
In North Dakota, another waiver recipient, Xcel Energy, will now be able to conduct unmanned flights without a visual observer within 100 feet above and 20 feet laterally of the company's transmission lines.
"These updated waivers for the North Dakota IPP and Xcel Energy are a big win and, with them in place, companies across the country should recognize that our state is the location of choice for advanced UAS operations," Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., told the Grand Forks Herald. "The waivers strengthen the federal, state, and private partnerships we've built and enable the testing and implementation of this technology for public, commercial, rural, and urban applications.
Of course, this is just a preliminary step, far from a massive rollout. For example, Flytrex's drones will operate along one delivery route only, connecting a distribution center at Holly Springs Towne Center, a shopping destination owned and operated by Kite Realty Group, which is partnering on the project, with a single delivery point, a local outdoor sports, and recreation hub.
But for industry watchers, these are steps in the right direction. Commercial drones are a foregone conclusion, and we'll be seeing more applications like infrastructure inspection and drone delivery in the coming years.