Duck! There’s a drone overhead!

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Coming soon to a state Department of Transportation near you — drones.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao May 9 announced the first 10 participants in an Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) pilot program, including the North Carolina DOT, the North Dakota DOT and the Kansas DOT.

The Tennessee and Alaska DOTs are also participating through awards to the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority and the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

The other awards went to communities and private sector firms.

State DOTs want to use drones where it’s hard or dangerous for humans to get to, like checking underneath bridges for signs of damage and/or aging, keeping an eye on how construction projects are going, monitoring traffic and so forth, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Journal.

Drones also are being considered for the delivery of disaster relief goods when trucks and other vehicles can’t get through.

The drones are expected to be used to find stranded motorists.

Kansas Secretary of Transportation Richard Carlson said the pilot program is “a terrific opportunity [to] reduce risks to our workers during infrastructure inspections, search-and-rescue, and remote area assessments,” noting that KDOT must keep an eye on about 140,000 miles of public roads, many of them in rural areas.

Speaking of the development of drone technology, Chao said, “Our country is on the verge of the most significant development in aviation since the jet airplane age.”

The North Carolina DOT said its pilot proposal emphasizes working with “global drone delivery companies to set up a delivery network of medical distribution centers that can use drones to transport blood and other medical supplies.”

Bottom line, will drones be taking the jobs of truck drivers?

How many drones can be cleared to use an airspace, anyway?

According to Chao, the drone technology “is developing so rapidly that our country has reached a tipping point” and there are now 1.1 million drones in operation along with 90,000 registered drone operators.

“To reap the safety and economic benefits drones have to offer, we need to create a safe pathway for them,” Chao said in the AASHTO Journal posting. “So this pilot program will safely test drones in conditions they are currently forbidden from operation in — beyond line of sight, over the heads of people and at night.”

The pilot program was established last year and the U.S. DOT had until last month to establish at least five sites for “experimentation” with drones and to develop new guidelines that allow local, state and tribal governments “a role in regulating and enforcing drone operations.”

The 10 pilot program finalists are supposed to be working with the Federal Aviation Administration to refine their operational concepts, but according to AASHTO, no federal money is being used on the program.

The information from the drone testing by the awardees will be used by the U.S. DOT and the FAA to draw up “enabling rules” for drone operations in “more complex, low-altitude” situations, to address security and privacy risks and to improve communications between local and state entities.

Finally, there was the mention of using drones to patrol the U.S.-Canadian border but nothing about the U.S.-Mexican border.

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