A revolution may be building in the sky just hundreds of feet above your head.
Whether or not it delivers on its promise will depend upon how we learn to use drones — Unmanned Aircraft Systems — as tools of commerce, and how we learn to live with them as consumers. Much is at stake in a market that could add as much as $82 billion and 100,000 jobs to the U.S. economy by 2025.
High-visibility companies like Google and Amazon have dominated news coverage of the commercial drone sector, with the former working on air traffic control systems for the diminutive aircraft even as Amazon explores same-day delivery of its ubiquitous packages. But the potential uses of drones are far broader, encompassing remote inspection of dangerous installations (broadcast towers come to mind), aerial mapping for construction planning, crop maintenance and inspection, and delivery of medical supplies to out of the way locations.
So facile is drone technology that it conjures up comparisons with the early days of the Web, when network communications began to be grafted onto existing businesses to produce new opportunities. Then as now, the trick is to be imaginative enough to see what is possible. In Maryland, a small firm called Elevated Element offers drone-based photography for businesses and individuals. In North Carolina, PrecisionHawk delivers drone-based terrain mapping and 3D data collection to help farmers monitor the health of their crops. The University of Alaska Fairbanks has tracked polar bears and monitored ice conditions with a small scout drone.
Given the variety of drone applications, it’s startling to realize that the regulatory picture for unmanned aircraft use is anything but settled. In fact, commercial drone operations are technically banned in U.S. airspace, awaiting final FAA rules on drones that are still in their preliminary stages. Sensing the drone potential, numerous businesses and industry groups have been pressing for swifter action, and the FAA began issuing exemptions just last year. Currently, more than 1300 businesses are cleared to operate drones commercially, using what is known as a Section 333 exemption, as the ‘drones as service’ market begins to grow.
Unmanned aircraft equipped with cameras and a variety of sensors have come a long way since the days when the FAA released guidelines for model-aircraft hobbyists in 1981, with provisions that they be flown no higher than 400 feet and avoid going within three miles of an airport. A 2007 FAA ruling mandated a pilot’s license for drone operators, but Congressional action in 2012 ordered the agency to adopt less restrictive rules for commercial drone use.
It’s the working out of these commercial rules that we’re witnessing now, with a drone market potentially subject to conflicting regulatory jurisdictions. As we wait for clarification, which should come by 2017, companies large and small are continuing to develop new drone technologies, and states are passing their own regulations on the use of unmanned aircraft.
Meanwhile, drone hobbyists are not required to get a license or register their aircraft, much less undergo training. A number of well publicized incidents have drawn the issue into focus. In one day in late summer, twelve separate incidents of drones coming too close to airports or interfering with airplanes were recorded, with a near collision in Louisville and a close pass between a JetBlue flight landing in Los Angeles and a drone that appeared off its wing.
Drones are cheap and widely available, with the Consumer Electronics Association estimating that hobbyists will buy 700,000 of them in the U.S. this year. And nearly 700 close calls between aircraft and drones have been reported so far in 2015. In late March, a drone was reported hovering near a golf course where President Obama was playing, and in April a drone was chased by military aircraft after flying near the White House. All this followed the crash of a small drone on the White House grounds that forced a brief security lockdown in January.
Add privacy issues into the mix as drones fly over businesses and private homes alike and it becomes clear that numerous issues remain to be resolved. Technology to mandate limits on altitude and proximity to sensitive airspace, using satellite navigation to track drone location, may one day be a requirement for every drone. Solving these problems will require the development of tools that will make drone navigation autonomous, fitting into an air traffic system that treats them not so much as small airplanes but as "smartphones with propellers," a phrase 3D Robotics CEO Chris Anderson coined at the first InterDrone conference, recently held in Las Vegas.
Autonomous drones in this view fit into the emerging phenomenon called the Internet of Things, where hosts of everyday items become connected to the network. Work is underway at various companies. Built-in autonomy and smart obstacle avoidance systems like PrecisionHawk’s LATAS, for example — Low Altitude Tracking and Avoidance System — provide onboard flight planning, tracking and collision avoidance, drawing data from existing cellular networks.
On the macro scale, companies like Amazon, Google and Verizon have inked agreements with NASA to develop a comprehensive air-traffic control system to coordinate low-altitude drones. Called Unmanned Aerial System Traffic Management, the project — or something like it — will need to be in place before drones with the Amazon logo start bringing goods to our homes. This is air traffic control of the future, run by computers monitoring drones that easily outnumber traditional airline flights. How all this will emerge and who will pay for it are issues we’ll need to resolve before that revolution in the skies can truly take off.