US drone program rejects Amazon and China’s DJI, taps Apple instead

No reason given for tech giants’ exclusion but official says there were ultimately ‘no losers’ in the rigourous selection process

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 May, 2018, 11:48am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 May, 2018, 3:45pm

The US Transportation Department’s 10 winning drone pilot projects aimed at spurring the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in a wide variety of fields do not include Inc and China’s DJI, but do involve Apple, Alphabet Inc, and Microsoft Corp.

The pilot program is aimed at producing data to assist the Federal Aviation Administration in establishing rules and regulations to safely integrate drones at scale. The FAA still must decide questions before the pilot projects begin including whether drone deliveries should follow city streets or cross backyards.

Missing from the projects are Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, and DJI, the world’s largest maker of non-military drones. Over 140 applications were made and about a dozen were rejected. An application that would have seen Amazon deliver goods by drone to shoppers in New York City was also declined, a person familiar with the matter said.

The rejection was yet another stumbling block for DJI’s plans to go mainstream. The Shenzhen-based company was mired in controversy last year after the US Army banned the use of its drones due to security concerns. It later introduced a mode that allows users to fly their devices without any data exchange with the internet and commissioned a review of its security practices, a preliminary report of which was released in January. DJI remains the top drone manufacturer in the world, commanding an estimated 70 per cent global market share.

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On Monday, DJI announced that it was partnering with Microsoft to create a new software development kit (SDK) that would allow users to control drones using Windows 10 machines. There are 700 million Windows 10 devices globally, according to Microsoft.

Among the winners were microchip maker Intel Corp, plane maker Airbus SE, ride services company Uber Technologies Inc, delivery company FedEx Corp and Microsoft.

The applicants listed companies they would partner with in the experiments, and the winners may have a head start at the billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs the young industry expects to create.

US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said dozens more projects could be approved in coming months, either with new waivers or under existing rules. Asked about Amazon’s absence, Deputy Transportation Secretary Jeff Rosen cited a rigorous process and said there were “no losers”.

Amazon said it was unfortunate its applications were not selected but supports the US efforts.

“We’re focused on developing a safe operating model for drones in the airspace and we will continue our work to make this a reality,” said Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice-president of public policy.

Drone maker DJI introduces privacy mode after US Army ban

DJI said it submitted about a dozen applications.

“We congratulate the winners and will be happy to work with any of them with hardware, software or technical assistance to help these exciting ideas come to life,” said Adam Lisberg, spokesman for the world’s largest maker of non-military drones.

Apple plans to use the drone testing program in North Carolina to gather information to improve its Apple Maps service, the company said.

The wide interest in the US initiative, launched by President Donald Trump last year, underscores the desire of a broad range of companies to have a say in how the fledgling industry is regulated and ultimately win authority to operate drones for purposes ranging from package delivery to crop inspection.