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‘Going to mission!’: Drones are flying themselves, but how far should Washington let them go?

Tombo Jones, project manager for the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, launches a drone for a test flight May 30 at Virginia Tech. The team of engineers was testing the communications link between the aircraft and the ground control station over long distances. (Norm Shafer/For The Washington Post)

BLACKSBURG, Va. — They considered how well everyone slept the night before. They considered the chances a military jet might scream by on a training mission. They considered the farmer in the field.

Then they considered some more.

After making it through their list of everything that might possibly go wrong, the team from Virginia Tech sent a birdlike drone — shaped from black foam and packed with high-end communications and camera equipment — on an assignment designed to fail. They wanted to know how far it could fly before it lost contact with its human minders on the ground. So they clicked a destination that was out of range to see what would happen.

“Going to mission!” said the computer voice with a soothing European accent, as the three-foot-wide drone set off to do what it was told.

This test was for State Farm, which wants to send long-distance drones to assess disaster zones nationwide. But before the insurance giant can do that, it must make the case to the federal government that it can do the job safely.

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It is a process the Department of Transportation hopes to accelerate as it seeks to dramatically expand how drones are used across the country. Kentland Farm, where 123 slaves once toiled beside the New River, will be an epicenter of that new push.

Virginia’s was one of 10 pilot projects selected by the Trump administration last month and given a leg up as they seek permissions for wide-ranging drone missions, such as crop and railroad monitoring, and food and medical deliveries.

National-security officials have pointed to the danger drones pose as potential weapons, as they have been used overseas. Civil-liberties advocates have warned of broad potential for privacy abuses.

But the Federal Aviation Administration, which is overseeing the pilot, says the program will give local, state and federal officials the chance to work with private firms to wrestle with the potential risks and work through how to both spur and govern the powerful new technology.

Pushing limits

On a recent morning, the Virginia Tech specialists, working with State Farm at an FAA-designated test site known as the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), made their way through a Murderers’ Row of “what ifs.”

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What about helicopters? Other manned aircraft? Other drones? A nearby parked train?

The approach this day was to throw people at the problem. Although the black-and-yellow SenseFly drone can fly long distances autonomously, and its progress can be easily tracked by watching its fluorescent green avatar flit across a laptop screen, the day’s experiment required the route to be lined with human observers.

Without special permission or a waiver, the FAA generally prohibits flying drones beyond the point where the human operator can see them. That, and similar rules against flying over people, are the main regulatory hurdles to sharply expanded commercial drone use.

Advocates of such widespread use envision thousands of precisely coordinated drones flying over community after community, performing all sorts of tasks. But getting to that point would require chipping away at those government-imposed limits. The best way to do that is data, said Virginia Tech’s Mark Blanks, MAAP’s director.

“This will be a crawl, walk, run thing,” Blanks said.

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In this test, researchers aimed to prove it is safe to fly a drone even after it disappears from the pilot’s view, so they parked an observer every quarter mile to watch things unfold. If they prove they can “mitigate” any pitfalls with those extra eyes watching, they can apply to do new tests that remove those extra eyes.

“We’ll ask for expanded approvals that will allow us to do more and more and more,” Blanks said. “It’s not going to be one day we’re flying with eight people per aircraft to the next day one person per 1,000 kind of thing. It’s going to be a progression, over time, as we collect the data needed to support it.”

The track record Blanks and his colleagues have built running such experiments and working with the FAA was a key reason Virginia was chosen out of 149 applications. Leading companies also signed on. Project Wing, the drone delivery effort under Google parent Alphabet, is a partner, as are AT&T and Intel. Others include Airbus Aerial, infrastructure inspection firm Hazon Solutions, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Dominion Energy.

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Each comes with its own goals and questions they want to test, and they are still figuring out priorities among themselves and federal officials, participants said. Intel makes drones. AT&T sells network services used by them. Dominion wants to expand surveys of power lines.

The Virginia State Police and the state Department of Transportation, as well as county governments around the state — Loudoun, Buckingham, Cumberland, Montgomery, Prince Edward and Wise — were also part of the application, as were the Commonwealth’s aviation, space, emergency management and technology agencies.

'Do the right thing'

Project Wing has been delivering food and convenience items, including beauty supplies, to customers in Australia. James Burgess, a senior leader at Project Wing, said previous FAA approvals in the United States for expanded testing have largely focused on technical questions, revolving around vital issues of reliability and safety.

But as the company deploys technologies to pilot, track and identify drones at the same time in the United States as part of what amounts to an air traffic control system for the small aircraft, Burgess said it is also crucial to figure out what government authorities and the general population want out of such systems.

Traditionally, aviation has been governed at the federal level, but local officials “will have more and more of a stake in what happens” in the airspace directly above their communities, he said.

The pilot project “allows us to bring together not just the technology that we’ve been able to improve and validate and get ready over time, but now also the communities on the ground and the state and local entities that also need to be engaged” as partners, Burgess said.

State Farm, one of the country’s largest insurers, sees Virginia as a base to seek a federal green light for broad new operations, such as flying across hurricane-ravaged regions immediately after a storm. The company has started using drones to identify hail damage one house at a time, but it has only touched on a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of roof inspections it does every year.

In the future, customers might get faster responses and inspections, and workers could have less risk of falling, something the insurer pays close attention to, said Todd Binion, a State Farm manager who has helped spearhead the use of drones.

“We’re collecting really high-resolution imagery. Down the road, we’ll be able to apply advanced analytics against that high-resolution imagery and potentially automate the identification of damage,” Binion said.

As the company moves to use drones to operate more efficiently and better help customers in need, it says it has put a premium on safety. That “really aligned” with Virginia Tech’s approach, Binion said.

“Certainly, these types of advanced operations,” such as flying “beyond visual line of sight” and over people to do community-wide damage assessments, “really do carry a little more risk” than the way State Farm uses drones today, Binion said.

The goal, he said, is to “do the right thing, not just go fly drones willy-nilly.”

Among the Virginia Tech crew helping achieve that goal was Robert Briggs, who got into drone work after getting hooked on radio-controlled airplanes. He went on to fly drones for the Navy.

Sitting in the passenger seat of a Ford pickup, Briggs’s job was trying to help State Farm determine how far its drones could travel.

“Now we look really weird,” he said, eyes glued to his laptop controller as he and a colleague inched down a country lane with the truck’s hazard lights blinking and an oversized antenna sticking out.

For Briggs, this is work, not play. There’s no joystick. He’s not tweaking the drone’s every movement, like he enjoys doing with model airplanes. Instead, he’s telling the drone where to go and monitoring the laptop screen and radio traffic for potential problems.

“That is a little less fun, from a flying perspective,” he concedes. But making such flights a routine and somewhat uninteresting activity is what companies like State Farm and Alphabet and Amazon need for their ambitious plans. “None of that would be possible if it wasn’t for the technology, right?”

About two miles out, the communications started to get hinky. Then they dropped out altogether.

Untethered by its human masters, the drone turned around on its own, as it was programmed to do. It then started circling in a holding pattern, awaiting further instructions.

Briggs repeated the same mission, more than 20 times over four hours, gathering data for the future.

“Good unmanned aircraft operations should be anticlimactic. They should be benign and simple,” said his boss, Mark Blanks. “There’s a lot of hype about drone flights. But, usually, it’s pretty boring.”