Trump Administration Taps Google, Passes on Amazon and DJI for Drone Pilot Program
The US Department of Transportation announced Wednesday the participants in its Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program, which will test drones for a variety of applications otherwise not permitted under current law. Google, Qualcomm, and Microsoft all made the cut, while Amazon and DJI won’t be involved.
The initial round of the initiative—first announced six months ago—will include test programs that will operate in the cities of Reno, Nevada and San Diego, California. The Transportation Departments for Kansas, North Carolina, and North Dakota will oversee projects, as well the Memphis County Airport Authority, Lee County Mosquito Control District, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Two colleges will also be involved: the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and Virginia Tech.
“This is such an exciting day for aviation, for safety, for innovation,” US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said at an event Wednesday announcing the selectees, according to The Verge. “We’ve got 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.”
Over the course of the next two and a half years, the selected programs will collect data from drones as they carry out their unique tasks, all with an eye toward integrating drones into airspace across the country and accelerating the acceptance of the unmanned aircraft for commercial use.
Each program will be tailored to a particular purpose. The Lee County Mosquito Control District will use its drones for tracking down mosquito larvae to control the population of the pests, while the Choctaw Nation will work with CNN to test flying drones beyond a pilot’s line of sight, for example.
One of the primary areas of interest for the program is drone delivery. The Department of Transportation in Kansas will work with Microsoft to track drone deliveries throughout the state, while FedEx will use drones to deliver airplane parts to the Memphis International Airport. Virginia Tech will partner up with Google’s Project Wing initiative—a rehashing of a previous team-up that delivered burritos to students on the school’s campus back in 2016.
James Ryan Burgess, the co-lead of Google’s Project Wing, told Gizmodo, “Project Wing is pleased to partner with The Commonwealth of Virginia to help bring drone delivery one step closer to reality.” According to Burgess, the initiative will be Project Wing’s “most advanced testing to-date on US soil.”
Google as a whole is no stranger to working with the government on drone projects. The search giant came under fire for its role in helping the Pentagon develop AI to be used in military operations. Thousands of Google employees expressed outrage at the company for its involvement in the program.
Suspiciously absent from the Department of Transportation’s program is Amazon, which has a distinct interest in the approval of drones for commercial use. The company has been pushing for approval to deliver packages via drones and has already been given permission to test its fleet of Amazon Prime Air vehicles in a limited capacity. The company has also spent plenty of time filing wacky patents that propose ideas like self-destructing aircraft and drones that respond to people yelling at them, so it’s certainly thinking about the future possibilities for UAS, bizarre though they may be.
Given the constant barrage of insults from President Donald Trump directed at Amazon as part of his ongoing and mostly unrequited feud with company founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s absence in the pilot program is all the more glaring though certainly not surprising.
“While it’s unfortunate the applications we were involved with were not selected, we support the Administration’s efforts to create a pilot program aimed at keeping America at the forefront of aviation and drone innovation,” Brian Huseman, Vice President of Amazon Public Policy, told Gizmodo in a statement. He said Amazon remains focused on “developing a safe operating model for drones in the airspace and we will continue our work to make this a reality.”
Also missing an opportunity to participate in the first run of Integration Pilot Program was DJI, the world’s largest maker of non-military drones. Despite commanding about 70 percent of the consumer drone market and submitting more than one dozen applications to the Department of Transportation (via state and local government partners), according to Reuters, the Chinese manufacturer was passed over—likely due in part to ongoing concerns the company may be sharing user information with the Chinese government in an effort to spy on Americans. DJI has denied any wrongdoing, and it recently commissioned a security report in an effort to disprove rumors that the company is sending user data to Beijing, as the Department of Homeland Security has in the past expressed its doubts.
Update 5pm, May 10: Updated to include a statement from Google Project Wing co-lead James Ryan Burgess.
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Update 9:15am, May 11: In a statement, a DJI spokesperson clarified that the company did not itself apply for the program but instead worked with state and local partners. “DJI partnered on about a dozen applications, and given the large number of applicants, the odds were low for any particular company’s applications to be chosen,” the spokesperson said. “We congratulate the winners, look forward to seeing what they do, and will be happy to assist any of them with hardware, software or technical assistance.”