Massachusetts Boosts Public Sector Drone Activity to New Heights

Every year more US states embrace drone commerce as a pathway to economic growth.  But those states making the fastest progress have political infrastructure in place to support the rapid expansion of drone operations.  Part of that infrastructure is an executive-level drone task force that can spur drone activity by government agencies.  Another element is a supportive state legislature that can remove existing laws and legal roadblocks to expanded drone activity by public and commercial drone operators alike.

In the past year, a handful of states, including Massachusetts, Maryland and North Carolina, have created state-level drone task forces, typically with the state Department of Transportation in the lead.  They’ve also passed some important enabling legislation to allow drone operators and the private sector to collaborate more easily.

Massachusetts’ new Drones Operations Program is pushing all government agencies to incorporate drones into their day-to-day operations while also supporting the growth of research and testing centers throughout the state to promote drone enterprises that can collaborate with industry to expand the use of drones in a variety of commercial niches, from emergency response and disaster relief to grid inspections and agriculture.

For now the center of drone activity in the Bay State remains transportation and law enforcement.  The state DOT has received a growing number of FAA waivers and exemptions to expand its surveillance of the state’s railway infrastructure.  The latest waiver, granted in December, which is perhaps the most expansive in the nation today, allows MassDOT to inspect the full length of all railways in the state on a Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) basis, obviating the need for ground observers and visual tracking to ensure flight safety.

Drones will still be remotely piloted and their flights monitored digitally, but the new authorization frees up the agency to inspect rail infrastructure across the state from a central location.

Enhanced emergency response and criminal enforcement by fire and police departments and expedited medical supply deliveries between hospitals and patients is also a fast-growing niche in the Bay State.  A growing number of local police departments – plus the Massachusetts State Police – are developing new drones teams or expanding their existing ones, to conduct criminal and accident scene analysis and search-and-rescue operations, as well as tactical responses to 911 calls and SWAT hostage scenarios.  These operations not only save lives and reduce injuries, they conserve police resources and reduce congestion on state roads and highways to allow for more uninterrupted commerce.

One of the secrets to expanding drone activity in the Bay State is a major new focus on technological innovation. The MassDOT Aeronautics division has just forged a new partnership with American Robotics, a subsidiary of Ondas Holdings.  Aerial Robotics has developed the Optimus Drone, which is the world’s first small UAV developed for aerial security and data capture to receive a “type” certification, allowing their drone to be fully commercialized.  MassDOT will be deploying fleets of these drones to support its expanding infrastructure inspections, and eventually to move into a wider array of applications.

MassDOT is also developing a partnership with the MITRE Corporation, which has a long-standing relationship with the FAA.  MITRE was on hand to assist MassDOT to develop the safety technology and protocols to convince the FAA that the transport agency’s expanded activities could be conducted on a BVLOS basis.  MITRE will continue to work with MassDOT and other government agencies to ensure that the FAA will support BVLOS waivers in other critical areas, including pipeline inspections and wetlands conservation.

These initiatives are just the beginning.  In 2022-2023 Massachusetts ranked #22 on the Fairfax-VA-based Mercatus Center’s evaluation of the “drone readiness” of the 50 US states.  Today, at #8,  Massachusetts has broken the top 10 and ranks close to major national trend setters like New Jersey, Florida, Virginia and Texas.  With all of its current and future public sector drone programs expanding rapidly – and with major commercial drone activities just getting underway – the coming year should boost the Bay State’s ranking even higher.

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