Experimental drones have been flying around Montgomery County and beyond as part of a Virginia Tech-led program for at least six months, but so far there have been no crashes, injuries, close calls or other safety issues.
That comes from Mark Blanks, director of Tech’s Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, as Virginia officials deliver their latest progress report to the Federal Aviation Administration.
The White House-initiated Integration Pilot Program, or IPP, was designed to let a group of hand-selected communities see what they can do with drones under more relaxed regulations.
Participants report their findings back to the FAA, which will learn from the experiments and develop rules for future drone uses.
Virginia was selected in May 2018, and Google’s sister company, Wing, made its first long-distance drone delivery as part of the program across rural Montgomery County three months later.
Since then, Blanks said, Dominion Energy and State Farm have begun their own test flights under the IPP.
Some experimental flights have been staged in Montgomery County, including Wing’s beverage delivery in November to Sen. Mark Warner. Others have ventured further from Tech’s campus, like State Farm’s drones used to assess damage from Hurricane Florence.
The goal is to have all three participants up and running with larger commercial drone programs, which would deliver packages to real shoppers, collect data for real insurance claims and search for real downed power lines.
“I don’t expect that they will be there tomorrow,” Blanks said. “The process over the next couple of years is getting to that point.”
So far, the drone flights haven’t made a big splash, or even been noticeable to most locals. But that should change over the next 18 months.
Before then, Blanks said MAAP is planning outreach campaigns to make sure everyone knows the drones are coming and what they’ll be up to.
“People want to know. People don’t like the unknown,” he added.
MAAP has already begun talking with neighbors about concerns, from drone noise to privacy issues. Blanks expects much more of that as the program gains momentum.
“There will be concerns that will be raised, and we’ll need to address those,” Blanks said. “I believe there are legitimate concerns and we have to address them and work through a solution. But I also believe the technology can bring a great benefit to the community.”
The IPP program ends in October 2020. Before then, Blanks hopes the program will move from mostly remote locations, such as Virginia Tech’s rural Kentland Farm, to flying above more populated areas .
The relocation into more urban settings is a primary aim for MAAP, but Blanks said researchers first have to prove flights will be safe.
That’s already underway, as MAAP’s corporate partners experiment to build better drones, Virginia Tech learns how to ensure safety and the FAA learns the needed criteria before allowing specific drone uses.
“We’re getting better and better at doing that and the FAA is getting better at understanding what they need to see to understand if something is safe or not,” Blanks said. “There’s definitely a learning curve for both sides, for the FAA and for us. And that’s why this program exists.”
The drone flights have become less frequent during the colder months. Instead, MAAP’s team has been in planning mode for future flights when the weather is more hospitable.
“What you’ve seen so far from the program has been the start,” Blanks added. “This is the beginning of it, this is not the conclusion. We have much greater hopes for the program over the next year and a half.”