The average consumer might think of 30-minute toilet paper deliveries as the optimal use case for drones.
But U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao said the department has been successfully using drones to better assist recovery efforts in disaster-stricken areas.
Last fall, Chao launched a pilot program that allows state and local governments to experiment with various drone use cases during disasters, including delivery, photography and emergency management.
The department recently authorized drones to fly over areas affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, as well as wildfires raging across California. The drones photographed devastated areas to capture the state of infrastructure to help governments strategize on how they can implement a plan for recovery.
“There are conditions under which human beings should not be sent for all sorts of reasons and drones can perform a very valuable task,” she said in an interview with Yahoo Finance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Chao had to relax existing rules that require drones to be flown during the day, within the line of sight of the pilot and well above people’s heads. Increasingly, companies and news outlets are seeking — and getting — approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to capture footage closer to the ground.
The pilot program also incorporates a competitive bidding process that will result in 10 organizations getting the right to break the rules for the sake of experimentation. Chao hopes that she’ll get a better understanding of how to tweak drone regulation in the future. It’s worth pointing out that the U.S. Department of Transportation does not intend to allocate any funding to the pilot.
Chao predicts that unmanned aerial systems could lead to $82 billion and 100,000 additional jobs over the next decade.
Melody Hahm is a senior writer at Yahoo Finance, covering entrepreneurship, technology and real estate. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.