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Highway in the sky? Michigan teams up with Ontario to look at possibilities for drone deliveries

Drone getting ready to launch
Posted at 5:33 PM, Jan 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-16 17:33:26-05

LANSING, Mich. — The state of Michigan and Ontario are working together on new technology that would allow drones to fly beyond what their pilots can see, making drone-based delivery a reality in the region.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the initiative on Jan. 5.

"It's definitely an exciting time in aviation, as things start to change toward what we call future mobility," said Bryan Budds, deputy administrator at the Michigan Department of Transportation Office of Aeronautics.

Drones can be used for a lot of things these days: search and rescue, surveying and plain old photography.

"But one of the hurdles that folks encounter is that you have to maintain visual line of sight with the drone," Budds said. "When a pilot's out in the field using them, basically, they have to be able to see the drone, which sort of limits the capacity for the drone to go further and really limit some of the additional economic impacts of drone flying beyond visual line of sight can do."

Budd says Michigan and Canada are collaborating to see if drones can be used for small deliveries and flown beyond what a pilot can see.

"So this would be things in its infancy, looking at potentially transported medical supplies, just in time delivery logistics and also could potentially be your local home delivery for certain packages and things like that," Budds said, "a medical system or a commercial package delivery service, or ultimately some sort of transit system. How does the state enable repeatable safe operations?"

Part of that is taking a look at infrastructure.

"What sort of infrastructure commonly referred to as command and control type systems to make sure that the drone is operating safely and appropriately when the pilot can't see it. So that's one of the things we're going to look at is what is the infrastructure needed to really support those operations," Budds said.

A Matrice 600 is a good representation of what the drones will look like. They are pretty large, about five feet across.

"Some of the smaller traditional commercial drones can lift a pound or less. Some of the larger ones would you potentially have seen from the video on from just a couple that MDOT operates can lift heavier payloads up to 5 to 10 pounds," Budds said.

They are looking at the possibility of a commercial skyway in southeast Michigan, an international connection between Michigan and Ontario and another Michigan location yet to be determined.

"Canada and the U.S are substantial trading partners, Ontario and Michigan, because of their proximity, Windsor and Detroit. It's a fairly significant trade quarter, so where our economies are reliant on each other. And so this is just an important step to make sure that we look at other opportunities and how technology can help us achieve more better fluidity and better movement of people and goods," said Raed Kadri, vice president of strategic initiatives and head of the Ontario Vehicle Innovation Network.

The organization is one of the many partners in the study.

"We'll look at policy regulations, infrastructure requirements, technology requirements, measures that need to be put in place as we move forward," Kadri said. "We'll make sure that we can kind of bring forward the appropriate answers to the study. We ask these different questions around policy regulations, infrastructure, technology, and other items that are required for the feasibility study."

Budds says the goal is to have the study wrapped up by the late summer.

"Probably the first step that we're going to undertake is really narrow in on those locations that we're going to study initially," Budds said. "It's an exciting time to look at some of these future opportunities and see what exists in Michigan."

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