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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have the potential to transform our daily lives but not until regulators can be sure they won't fall from the sky or crash into other aircraft.

The big picture: UAVs have almost unlimited uses — from combatting disease to delivering pizza — and their numbers are expected to soar across multiple industries in the next few years. The Federal Aviation Administration wants to relax some of its rules to allow that growth but in doing so it has to determine how safe is safe enough.

What's happening: A series of pilot projects are under way or starting soon in the U.S. that aim to demonstrate how drones could be operated safely.

  • The projects range from delivering packages in Nevada and medical supplies in North Carolina to inspecting pipelines in Alaska and jets in Tennessee.
  • The FAA is seeking public comments on proposed rule changes that would allow drones to fly over people and at night — two circumstances that are currently prohibited without a waiver.
  • The goal is to find a way to safely integrate small unmanned aircraft into the national airspace and avoid incidents like the one that shut down London's Gatwick Airport in December.
  • Demand is exploding. The emerging global market for drone-based services is valued at over $127 billion, per consulting firm PwC.

Last week, top FAA officials traveled to Rwanda to see how the country has managed to embrace drones on a national scale with the help of an American company.

  • Zipline, based in San Francisco, makes thousands of deliveries per day of blood and other medical supplies by drone in Rwanda.
  • Rwanda recently expanded the company's contract from 25 hospitals to 450, serving 15 million people.
"Rwanda has set a powerful precedent for how a large national-scale UAV implementation could work"
— Keller Rinaudo, CEO and co-founder, Zipline

The safety measures Zipline already uses in Rwanda are similar to what the FAA is proposing for the U.S.

  • If a drone runs into trouble, an emergency parachute is triggered that can bring it safely to the ground.
  • The two-winged drones, which look like small planes, are built from materials that crumple upon impact to absorb energy so no one gets hurt on the ground.
  • About 1 in 1,000 flights ends in an emergency landing, Rinaudo says, and the drones are easily repaired and back in the air within an hour.

What's next: This summer, Zipline will bring its fleet of delivery drones to North Carolina, where they will be used to deliver medical supplies to rural hospitals as part of the FAA's UAS Integration Pilot Program.

Yes, but: The U.S. national airspace system is more complicated than Rwanda's, says Jenny Rosenberg, executive director of the Alliance for Drone Innovation, which represents drone manufacturers.

  • The U.S. has tens of thousands of commercial flights a day, plus military and general aviation flights.
  • There's also a multitude of restricted zones, not to mention security and privacy concerns.

The bottom line: The FAA's challenge is to balance the risks and opportunities created by all those drones without stifling innovation.

Go deeper: A sky full of driverless flying cars in just a decade

Go deeper

CCP releases two jailed Canadians after Huawei CFO deal with DOJ

Photo: Sheldon Cooper/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Two Canadians imprisoned by the Chinese government for over 1,000 days have been released and are expected to arrive in Canada on Saturday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday.

Why it matters: Their release comes hours after Huawei Technologies CFO Meng Wanzhou reached a deal with the U.S. Department of Justice that resolves the criminal charges against her and could pave the way for her to return to China.

Updated 11 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Arizona GOP's private recount of 2020 election confirms Biden's win

Contractors working on behalf of the GOP examine and recount 2020 ballots at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix in May. Photo: Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images

In an odd coda to the 2020 election, private contractors conducting a GOP-commissioned recount in Arizona confirmed President Biden’s win in Maricopa County.

Why it matters: The unofficial, party-driven recount has been heavily covered on cable news as part of former President Trump's continued effort to sow doubt about the election result.

Del Rio bridge camp empty following Haitian migrant surge

A boy bathes himself in a jug of water inside a migrant camp at the U.S.-Mexico border on Sept. 21 in Del Rio, Texas. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

The last migrants camping under the Del Rio International Bridge, which connects Texas and Mexico, departed on Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced during a White House press briefing.

Driving the news: Thousands of migrants, mostly from Haiti, had arrived to the makeshift camp after crossing the southern border seeking asylum. Roughly 1,800 migrants will now head to U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing centers.