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When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September, 2017, it destroyed 90 percent of the cell sites on the island; knocking out most communication with the outside world and significantly hampering relief effort. AT&T responded by deploying its Flying Cell on Wings (COW) – a drone outfitted with LTE radios and antennas to provide temporary voice, data, and Internet service in Puerto Rico.

As with other national disasters, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS or drone) technology is playing a vital role in America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the country, UAS technology can be safely deployed to assist impacted communities and aid the vital work of public health and safety officials. While the UAS community is clearly in a position to enhance the health and safety of all Americans, there are near-term challenges and obstacles that the industry will need to overcome.

UAS and the COVID-19 Response

UAS technology is already playing a vital role in our nation’s response to this pandemic. By their very nature, UAS limit person-to-person contact, promote social distancing and prevent further spread of the virus. As one example, in San Diego, California, the Chula Vista Police Department is using UAS outfitted with speakers to communicate to people, including individuals in difficult to reach areas, the services and resources that are available to help the community.

UAS can provide other essential services that both expedite logistics and mitigate the need for extensive human labor and interaction. UAS can be used to distribute COVID-19 testing kits, prescription drugs and other critical supplies to impacted communities and quarantined and isolated individuals. UAS can also play a vital role in supporting industry and the economy more broadly. As the virus has spread, personnel from all vertical market sectors of our economy are quarantined, while many employees are on mandatory telework. UAS are force multipliers in all vertical market sectors from public safety to industrial inspections, and everything in between.

The commercial UAS industry is available and ready to assist with public safety COVID-19 response efforts for the benefit of all Americans. To help identify where and how UAS can best aid ongoing response efforts, the Commercial Drone Alliance is currently conducting a survey that assesses UAS operator capabilities and readiness for deployment. That survey can be accessed here.

Impact of COVID-19 on the Commercial UAS Industry and DHS Guidance on Essential Workers

The COVID-19 pandemic will have an unprecedented effect on complex global supply chains and the movement of personnel. This disruption will no doubt impact the availability of necessary UAS-related parts and equipment from suppliers. Travel restrictions, social distancing requirements and closure orders will also impact employee work travel.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has published guidelines to assist state and local officials with identifying critical infrastructure, and the essential workers needed to maintain critical infrastructure and services that Americans depend on during the COVID-19 response. Depending on the nature of UAS work to be performed, the DHS guidelines may promote the ability of certain workers to continue work during periods of community restriction, access management, social distancing, and/or closure orders. UAS operations that support critical infrastructure, energy, agriculture, communications and first responder relief efforts may be considered essential under the DHS guidelines.

How COVID-19 Legislation Affects the UAS Industry

The economic disruptions caused by this pandemic have had, and will continue to have, a disproportionate impact on U.S. small businesses, which includes the majority of UAS companies. To combat some of these economic disruptions, the U.S. government has an array of credit options available to small business in need of liquidity.

On March 25th, the U.S. Senate passed a $2 trillion stimulus package which is the third phase of the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 800+ page “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act” (the CARES Act) is expected to be passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and be signed into law by the President in the coming days. The CARES Act will impact most stakeholders in the aviation community, including UAS companies. Among other forms of relief, the package includes $349 billion for small business loans and other assistance that UAS companies with fewer than 500 employees may be eligible for.

Additional stimulus packages at the federal level will likely follow and there is parallel activity occurring at the state and local level that will impact the UAS community and the industries they service. In the coming weeks and months it will be important to closely monitor federal, state and local legislation that will affect UAS industry stakeholders.

We understand it is a difficult time for our nation, and for our industry. We are nevertheless inspired by our community’s dedication and willingness to help during this time. If we can help you navigate these uncertain waters in any way, please let us know. We appreciate the opportunity to work with you.