Passenger drones are a step closer to becoming a reality in New Zealand after the Government pledged support for "advanced unmanned aircraft".
Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods announced on Friday the establishment of an Airspace Integration Trials Programme to support the testing and development of the technology.
She said the Government will work with partners in the industry - such as Zephyr Airworks - to test and demonstrate the use of drones for passenger transport, cargo delivery, agricultural services and hazard management.
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"The Government is committed to supporting the growth of an innovative unmanned aircraft sector in New Zealand," Woods said. "We're creating opportunities to test and develop these emerging technologies."
It follows the release in July of the Government's Drone Integration Paper which outlined how drones could be integrated into the aviation sector in New Zealand.
The paper said it would require drone operators to pay their share of the costs of ensuring an "integrated, safe, sustainable and responsive" aviation and transport system.
"If regular freight deliveries with drones are to become a reality, we will need to consider issues such as infrastructure requirements, and the appropriate licensing system for operators."
New Zealand-based Zephyr Airworks, a strategic partnership between US company Kitty Hawk and Boeing's NeXt division, is the first industry partner in the Government's programme, and will define the scope of a passenger-transport focussed trial.
Zephyr's self-flying, electric, vertical take-off and landing aircraft 'Cora' has been tested in New Zealand since 2017, after more than nine years of development in the United States.
The company signed an agreement in October last year with Air New Zealand to work collaboratively on bringing the world's first autonomous electric air taxi service to market in New Zealand.
Air New Zealand said in a statement on Friday it "welcomes the establishment of an Airspace Integration Trials Programme for autonomous aircraft by the Government".
The Government is investing $2.1 million from the Science and Innovation budget to the Civil Aviation Authority to support 'Cora', including the employment of more technical experts.
The Ministry of Transport will also get $900,000 to support policy development related to regulatory settings around unmanned aircraft.
Woods said the Government will also reimburse aircraft owners for a portion of the cost of installing automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) technology.
The technology determines an aircraft's position via satellite navigation and periodically broadcasts it, enabling it to be tracked.
"ADS-B technology will bring numerous safety benefits to our aviation system, [but] we understand small aircraft operators will face cost obstacles," Woods said.
The ADS-B Transponder Grant will be available to approximately 4000 general aviation operators in New Zealand.
A recent study commissioned by MBIE and the Ministry of Transport estimated the commercialisation of drones could generate $7.9 billion to the New Zealand economy over the next 25 years.