Med supplies delivered by drone to Tangier Island? It’s possible

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BY CAROL VAUGHN, Eastern Shore Post —

Imagine having medical supplies delivered in a flash to homes on Tangier Island — in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay — on small, personless aircraft. 

The concept is on its way to becoming reality. 

Nearly $1.9 million in federal funding will go toward planning and prototyping the first phase of a drone project to deliver medical supplies around the Eastern Shore, including to Tangier.

U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine announced the money was awarded to the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission, or A-NPDC, through the Department of Transportation’s Strengthening Mobililty and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) grant program.

The grant program was established through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed by Congress.

Partners with the A-NPDC on the project include Riverside Health System, DroneUp, and Old Dominion University, according to a press release from the senators.

“We’re glad to see these federal dollars go to support a drone technology project that will deliver and transport critical medical supplies around the Eastern Shore and Tangier Island. 

“This is another powerful example of how the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is helping improve our transportation systems to help communities across Virginia,” the senators said in a joint statement.

Warner and Sen. John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, in February introduced legislation to expand the use of drones for deliveries nationwide by streamlining and reforming the federal regulatory process for approving drone flights.

The legislation would help clear the way for drones to be used for commercial transport of goods across the country.

Currently, each aircraft and each flight beyond the line of sight requires drone operators to get a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Additionally, “the FAA has not laid out any consistent set of criteria for the granting of waivers, making the process for approving drone flights slow and unpredictable,” according to a press release.

 The Increasing Competitiveness for American Drones Act would require the FAA to issue a new rule allowing such operations under certain circumstances.

“Drones have the ability to transform so much of the way we do business. Beyond package delivery, drones can change the way we grow crops, manage disasters, maintain our infrastructure, and administer medicine,” Warner said.

The bill would require the FAA to establish a “risk methodology” used to determine what level of regulatory scrutiny is required:  

Operators of small drones, under 55 pounds, would have to declare that they conducted a risk assessment and meet the standard, subject to audit compliance by the FAA.

Operators of drones between 55 and 1,320 pounds would have to submit materials based on the risk assessment to the FAA to seek a “Special Airworthiness Certificate,” and could be limited to operating no more than 400 feet above the ground.

Operators of drones over 1,320 pounds would have to undergo the full certification process — the standard approval process for crewed aircraft.

The legislation also would create the position of Associate Administrator of UAS Integration and a UAS Certification Unit, which would have sole authority to issue all rules, certifications, and waivers.

The Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) endorsed the legislation.

“Commercial drone operations provide valuable services to the American public and workforce — but significant regulatory hurdles are hampering these benefits from reaching their fullest potential and jeopardize U.S. global leadership in aviation. The regulatory challenges are not driven by safety, they are hampered by bureaucracy,” said Michael Robbins, AUVSI chief advocacy officer.

The Small UAV Coalition and the Commercials Drone Alliance also support the legislation, according to the release.

Virginia is home to one of seven FAA-approved sites nationwide, at Virginia Tech, where researchers are testing ways to incorporate drones safely into the existing airspace.

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