Vir­gini­ans to be see­ing more drones as firms work to move them into more pop­u­lated ar­eas


ROANOKE — Ex­per­i­men­tal drones have been fly­ing around Mont­gomery County and be­yond as part of a Vir­ginia Tech-led pro­gram for at least six months. 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 al­low a group of hand­s­e­lected com­mu­ni­ties to 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, 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 are com­pa­nies that have be­gun their own test flights un­der the IPP.

Some have been in Mont­gomery, in­clud­ing Wing’s bev­er­age de­liv­ery to Sen. Mark Warner, R-Va. Oth­ers have ven­tured far­ther from Tech’s cam­pus, like State Farm’s drones used to as­sess dam­age from Hur­ri­cane Florence.

The ul­ti­mate goal is to have all three up and run­ning with larger com­mer­cial drone pro­grams, de­liv­er­ing pack­ages to real shop­pers, col­lect­ing data for real in­sur­ance claims and search­ing 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.”

To date, the drone flights haven’t made a big splash or even been noticeable to most lo­cals. But that should change over the next year and a half.

Be­fore it does, Blanks said MAAP is plan­ning out­reach cam­paigns to make sure ev­ery­one knows the drones are com­ing and what they’ll be do­ing.

“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 picks up steam.

“There will be con­cerns that will be raised, and we’ll need to ad­dress those,” he 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 Farms, to more pop­u­lated ar­eas where drones will fly over and in­ter­act with real peo­ple.

The move into more ur­ban set­tings is a pri­mary goal for MAAP, but Blanks said re­searchers first have to prove it’s safe.

That’s what’s hap­pen­ing now, as MAAP’s cor­po­rate part­ners ex­per­i­ment to build bet­ter drones, Vir­ginia Tech learns how to en­sure safety and the FAA learns what it needs to see 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 slowed down dur­ing the colder months. In­stead, MAAP’s team has been plan­ning for fu­ture flights when the weather is more hos­pitable.

“This is the be­gin­ning of it. This is not the con­clu­sion,” Blanks added. “We have much greater hopes for the pro­gram over the next year and a half.”

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