The controlled airspace above Southwest Florida might become more congested now that the Trump administration has cleared the way for Lee County Mosquito District (LCMD) as one of ten state, local, and tribal governments as participants in the new Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program.
On Wednesday afternoon, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao named Lee County and nine others among 149 applicants for the UAS Integration Pilot Program that “will help tackle the most significant challenges to integrating drones into the national airspace,” according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) press release.
“Data gathered from these pilot projects will form the basis of a new regulatory framework to safely integrate drones into our national airspace,” said Secretary Chao.
Here is the full list of the ten selectees:
Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Durant, OK
City of San Diego, CA
Virginia Tech – Center for Innovative Technology, Herndon, VA
Kansas Department of Transportation, Topeka, KS
Lee County Mosquito Control District, Ft. Myers, FL
Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, Memphis, TN
North Carolina Department of Transportation, Raleigh, NC
North Dakota Department of Transportation, Bismarck, ND
City of Reno, NV
University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK
“The enthusiastic response to our request for applications demonstrated the many innovative technological and operational solutions already on the horizon,” Secretary Chao added.
The Trump administration is expecting to stimulate economic development through the deployment of drones in agriculture, energy, public safety, media, infrastructure, and construction. Secretary Chao also plans to test detection and tracking of the drones and traffic-management systems in each of the ten selected regions.
“Our nation will move faster, fly higher and soar proudly toward the next great chapter of American aviation,” said President Donald Trump, who approved the program late last year.
According to CNBC, the pilot program allows Lee County to incorporate drones into their fleet of aircraft used to control Florida’s ubiquitous mosquito population. The pilot program could provide mosquito control drone operators with more relaxed federal regulations, such as enabling flights above the maximum allowable altitude of 400 feet.
“The pilot program could allow not only expanded use for observation and spraying but also potentially at higher altitudes or in more remote areas where visual contact might no longer be a requirement,” said Eric Jackson, a public information officer at the Lee County Mosquito Control District in southwestern Florida.
“We’ve been doing this for 60 years with aircraft dealing with mosquito issues, so I’m thinking that might have played a part (in our selection),” Jackson told CNBC, describing the region’s mosquito populations as a public health risk.”Our district relies heavily on aerial operations.”
Jackson said his department used drones for about a year to “take images of aquatic bodies to see where there’s a lot of vegetation.”
“Because where you have vegetation crowding out water, sometimes mosquitoes can grow in those,” he added.
Jackson told CNBC that the department hopes to acquire an advanced 1,500 lbs. drone in its surveillance and pest treatment operations fleet. The pilot program would relax current federal drone laws, allowing the mosquito control drone operator to fly above 400 feet, at night, and beyond the line of sight.
“We potentially could be using it more for surveillance and in more isolated areas for treatment missions,” Jackson said. “We’re trying to be as innovative as we can and as efficient as we can. And if this can be used safely, we’re open to anything.”
“Really, the whole point of this program is to be able to expand beyond the current regulations to see how this can be used,” he said.
“We have pilots in the air, and as the airspace becomes more crowded and people start flying above 400 feet and out of line of sight, [we asked ourselves] how can we make sure we have a seat at the table to where we can help draft these regulations to keep our pilots safe.”
While Lee County is simply one of the ten selectees for the drone pilot program, we are curious to see what the other nine municipalities will do with their new drones. So far, Jackson is hellbent in replacing his fleet of expensive aircraft and human pilots with inexpensive 1,500 lbs. drones.