By Jennifer Van Grove
The futuristic possibilities associated with autonomous, commercial drone activity _ think food and package delivery, medical supply transport or enhanced border security _ will be realized in San Diego, and soon.
Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that the city was selected to participate in its experimental commercial drone program, called the "Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program."
The city, in partnership with the city of Chula Vista and San Diego's Regional Economic Development Corporation, applied earlier this year for the program to push the limits of commercial drone testing in real-world environments. The program is also meant help the Federal Aviation Administration develop ground rules around commercial drone use across the country.
San Diego was one of 10 winning agencies, selected from a field of 149 city and state applicants. Other winners include the states of Kansas, Virginia, and North Dakota, and the cities of Reno and Memphis.
Though the specifics of the program remain unclear, the designation means that San Diego can obtain expedited approvals and waivers for its more than 20 regional partners to kick-start commercial drone testing.
The city's winning proposal included real-world applications, as put forth by its government, research and business partners _ including UCSD, Qualcomm and Uber _ already developing drone-related systems for commercial purposes.
"San Diego is a hotbed of autonomous vehicle activity already," said Erik Caldwell, the director of economic development for the city of San Diego. "What we really heard from our partner companies is that they're ready to go, fast ... the activity they're doing indoors and in confined spaces is ready to move outdoors."
That means San Diegans will be some of the first in the nation to experience drone-powered conveniences such as food delivery from Uber in minutes.
"We will work on food delivery (by drone in San Diego), which is one of the most exciting parts of the business," said Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi Wednesday evening at the company's Elevate summit in Los Angeles. "And, listen it is my personal belief that a key to solving urban mobility is flying burgers."
Other trial programs, as outlined in the city's proposal, will incorporate drones to improve border surveillance, as well as speed up hospital blood tests, with the latter application relying on drones instead of couriers to deliver samples to and from labs.
Behind the scenes will be Qualcomm, AT&T, Intel and others that have promised to join forces to address the technical and logistical hurdles associated with operating a fleet of unmanned vehicles in cities.
"A key focus of the testing will be connectivity, using 4G LTE and upcoming 5G networks to accelerate the development of technology and support policy development," a spokesperson for Qualcomm said in a statement. "The San Diego region possess a unique mix of environments from rural to urban with a mix of critical infrastructure, public utilities, tourist facilities, international border and coastal areas. We look forward to working with leading organizations in this pilot program to produce data which will assist the FAA in establishing rules and regulations necessary to safely integrate drones at scale."
While many of the details surrounding the UAS Integration Pilot Program are still unknown, city officials expect to learn how they can move forward at a Thursday morning briefing scheduled with the FAA.
Staff writers Lori Weisberg and Mike Freeman contributed to this story.
(c)2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune