Feds Approve Drone Delivery Pilot Programs From Uber, Intel, Alphabet—But Not Amazon

A drone.

Drones may soon be able to fly at night, among other benefits. Mika Geiloo / Pixabay

The Trump administration is going all in on drones, with help from FedEx, Alphabet and Uber. But it’s leaving Amazon out in the cold.

On Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced that 10 local, state and tribal governments will work with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and companies in the private sector to further integrate drones into their operations.

The initial awardees in the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program include towns in California, Nevada, Oklahoma, Virginia, Kansas, Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, North Dakota and Alaska.

Each of these municipalities will work with tech and aviation companies over the next three years to increase drone use and reduce potential privacy and security risks.

Their main priorities will include night operations, package delivery, flights over people and long distance flights beyond the pilot’s line of sight. Under current regulations, drones must fly within 400 feet of the ground, operate during the day and stay within sight of their operators.

“We’ve got to create a path forward for the safe integration of drones if our country is to remain a global aviation leader,” Chao said at a press conference.

No federal funds will be spent on the drone program, though each company will share data with the FAA and the Department of Transportation.

Cities will also hopefully see economic benefits: According to The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, by 2025 drones will create 100,000 jobs and contribute $82 billion to the American economy.

In all, 149 companies applied to be part of this growth. The 10 finalists include both worldwide tech leaders and small startups.

Here’s a look at some of the projects.

  • Uber will work with San Diego to create drone landing stations and ports. This could be a precursor to the company’s recently announced plan to develop flying taxis.
  • FedEx, GE and Intel drones will inspect aircraft and runways at Memphis International Airport (coincidentally FedEx’s U.S. operations hub). They will also deliver parts and provide emergency response.
  • Alphabet’s Project Wing will deliver packages in Virginia. Researchers hope to make drone deliveries a routine part of life in the state, though feedback from local residents will determine the technology’s future.
  • Reno, Nevada-based drone delivery company Flirtey will work with four of the 10 cities on its project to carry defibrillators to heart attack patients. Studies have shown that drone response times are 16 minutes faster than ambulances, giving patients higher odds of survival.
  • North Carolina-based PrecisionHawk will experiment with unmanned medical supply delivery and develop traffic management systems for drones.
  • Drone tracking service AirMap, which acts as an air traffic controller for the drone industry, is a partner in six of the winning programs. Its responsibilities will include package delivery, disaster response, agricultural surveying, herd management and nuclear power plant inspection.

One name was noticeably absent from the list of approved companies: Amazon.

The company has been expanding its Prime Air delivery service over the last two years, but that wasn’t enough to satisfy the feds.

“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,” Amazon vice president of public policy Brian Huseman said in a statement.

Amazon’s rejection is ironic because it was one of the earliest supporters of the pilot program when it was announced in October.

The online retail giant also patented a delivery drone that responds to human voices and movements, including pointing, waving arms and screaming.

Of course, President Donald Trump recently criticized Amazon, claiming it doesn’t pay taxes and hurts the U.S. Postal Service. Neither assertion is true.

Chao said companies that didn’t win should keep the federal government abreast of their work, because there were “no losers” after yesterday’s announcement.

Amazon likely feels differently.

Feds Approve Drone Delivery Pilot Programs From Uber, Intel, Alphabet—But Not Amazon