In remarks at a virtual event today, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao announced the launch of a new federal drone-integration initiative.

The program, called BEYOND, will advance the safe integration of drones into the national airspace by creating a framework for collaboration among the diverse group of stakeholders committed to realizing the potential of this new form of aviation. And it gives Virginia Tech’s drone researchers another opportunity to help shape the evolution of a critically important emerging technology. 

BEYOND builds on the success of its forerunner, the UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP), which was led by the U.S. Department of Transportation and managed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). That three-year program, which ended on Oct. 25, brought together companies, research organizations, state and local governments, and federal agencies on teams focused on high-impact drone-integration projects. 

Virginia’s selection for the program in 2018 kicked off two-and-a-half years of remarkable progress in a state that already had a reputation as a trailblazer in this field. The state’s team, which will continue in the BEYOND program, is led by the Center for Innovative Technology. The Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), an FAA-designated UAS test site whose leadership of multiple federal drone projects has propelled the industry forward, has managed the team’s three projects in collaboration with corporate partners Dominion Energy, State Farm, and Wing.

“The IPP has given us an opportunity to explore the state of the technology and begin to understand what will work for communities, for companies, and for the regulator, all of whom are essential partners in UAS integration,” said Mark Blanks, MAAP’s director. “Now we’re looking forward to collaborating with the FAA and our partners on the challenge of scaling up, moving the industry beyond case-by-case approvals and waivers toward a framework that will support these operations as they mature from initial tests and trials to routine operations.”

pilot checks balance of a drone
Virginia's IPP team has explored high-impact applications for drones, including powerline inspection. Here, MAAP pilot Christopher Stewart checks the balance of a drone during research on detect-and-avoid technology, part of a collaboration with Dominion Energy. Mark Blanks for Virginia Tech.

Incorporating drones into organizations’ existing operations can offer a lengthy list of potential benefits, including more reliable power grids, faster search-and-rescue operations, and more efficient recovery from natural disasters. The aircraft also create opportunities for entirely new services, like drone delivery, that provide access to everyday essentials and invigorate local economies

But drones are a relatively new technology entering a rigorously regulated industry. Creating a space for them effectively means balancing the interests of companies eager to apply their powerful capabilities, communities enthusiastic about potential benefits but sometimes apprehensive about unknown risks, and regulators and government agencies tasked with ensuring safety in a rapidly-evolving industry. What the IPP accomplished was to bring all these groups to the same table and create a framework for dialogue. 

Virginia’s team seized the opportunity, focusing on infrastructure inspection, damage assessment after natural disasters, and drone delivery. Over the program’s three-year span, the team conducted advanced testing on the use of UAS for powerline inspection, a challenging application with potential rewards for safety, reliability, and efficiency; obtained unique waivers that lay the groundwork for using drones as a valuable component of disaster response; and launched the first commercial drone-delivery service in the country to ferry goods on demand directly to homes (a service that has proven its value during the pandemic). 

“Our collaboration with the FAA and our partners as part of the original IPP program has been instrumental in highlighting Virginia’s status as an outstanding state for building a UAS business,” said Bob Stolle, CEO of the Center for Innovative Technology. “Those partnerships have helped catalyze strong working relationships among industry, our legislators, and executive branch agencies, such as the Virginia Department of Aviation and the Virginia Department of Transportation, to make Virginia a place where the UAS industry can grow and thrive, with regulation that helps facilitate economic development. We believe the BEYOND program will continue this outstanding evolution as we move to make routine commercial drone use a normal part of the Virginia landscape.”