The Commercial Drone Market: Four Things You May Not Know
In a few short years, drones have gone from high-tech toys to critical components of viable commercial enterprises. I find these fast-growing unmanned aircraft businesses extremely exciting, and work with many of them to get through the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) regulatory process. For those interested in the current state of the commercial drone market, I’ve identified four key trends that I believe can be helpful for potential market participants.
#1: The industry’s basic regulatory framework is in place.
In 2012 when I took over the FAA’s unmanned aircraft business, there were no rules for unmanned aircraft; the agency wasn’t even certain whether drones were technically aircraft under the law. That year, Congress passed the first legislation dealing with unmanned aircraft and how they could integrate into the national airspace systems, ruling that unmanned drones, but not model airplanes, are aircraft. In 2016 and 2018, Congress created new law around how unmanned aircraft should be managed in the US, and now even model airplanes come under FAA jurisdiction.
Current rules state that small unmanned aircraft weighing up to 55 pounds don’t require FAA approval but must be operated within visual line of sight of a pilot operating the controls, and that the aircraft cannot fly over people. Unmanned drones also can operate under stricter manned aircraft rules, if some of those rules are waived or if the user is granted exemptions. Several companies are now going through that process.
#2: New rules for unmanned aircraft systems are coming.
The FAA has several rules in the pipeline affecting what can be done under the current small unmanned aircraft systems requirements. The most notable of these deal with the bans on flying over people and nighttime operations. These changes were expected a few years ago but were held up because of security questions about the ability to remotely identify the drone, since the FAA and law enforcement officials worry that there is no easy way to identify a drone’s pilot. Unlike motor vehicles, which have license plates, drones have no equally visible or detectible identity device. As a result, the FAA needed to find a way to require remote identification.
Rules for that are working their way through the FAA, which hopes to release a rules package for comment by the end of this year. Barring major objections, the new rules would become effective within 18 to 24 months of being released.
Truly autonomous drones, which would provide for no pilot intervention and which technically are possible, seem very unlikely to be approved in the foreseeable future. Eventually, though, autonomous drones are likely to be approved as the FAA comes to see the pilot’s role as the overseer of the system, rather than the aircraft itself.
#3. Automated drone deliveries are coming too, but slowly.
Currently, drone deliveries in the US are restricted to visual line of flight, which obviously is not very practical for the real automated delivery systems that Amazon and Google Wing want to put into place. Both companies have requested two-year renewable exemptions from the rules applicable to manned aviation, which would enable them to do package deliveries. Some of these exemptions cover rules that make no sense for drones, such as having the pilot — who, in the case of drones, would be sitting at a desk — wear a seatbelt.
Google Wing has been granted those exemptions and Amazon is likely to be granted exemptions too. Also granted an exemption is a company called Flirtey, a Reno, Nev.-based company that is doing deliveries in North Carolina under a pilot program.
All the delivery aircraft in those companies’ programs must have aircraft certification or aircraft approval. That certification process is lengthy, and Amazon and Google have filed for exemptions to allow them to begin operations before the process is completed. The FAA, however, has made it clear that everyone granted an exemption will be required to be in the process of obtaining the necessary certification.
#4. ‘Air taxi’ drones are in our future.
One of the more compelling drone developments is unmanned air mobility, which are Jetson-like air taxis that can pick you up and fly you over traffic to your destination.
In some ways, the approval process for air taxies is easier than for drone deliveries because the rules for aircraft with people on board are straightforward. The challenges come from potential operators, like Uber, who want their pilots to operate multiple aircraft remotely. Those aircraft would be pretty much autonomous or extremely automated with the capability of remote intervention.
For such a service to exist, the aircraft would first have to be approved, then the pilot, and then the operating communication systems that would allow the pilot to control the aircraft remotely. That approval process is moving apace, and it’s in this area that many small companies and some of the big players in aviation — including Bell Helicopter and Airbus — are engaged.
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