As we enter 2018, the drone operating industry is settling into three categories, each trying to make their way through a set of rules that, although permissive for line of sight operations, limits what many companies hope to achieve with the technology.
The first group can be described as tier one operators; those using drones to take real estate photographs and perform roof inspections or a wide number of other applications that can be achieved with a system (drone and payload) that costs significantly less than 10,000 dollars. This group makes up the majority of the 100,000 drones that are registered with the FAA for commercial use. The opportunity is there, but for most, it is insufficient to support a full time career.
The tier two groups consist of enterprises trying to sell a higher value proposition for applications such as infrastructure inspection. Generally requiring a more sophisticated system and better credentials, the investment needed to participate in this sector is significantly higher. While there is some positive activity in this area, lucrative fee-paying assignments are still rare. Many large utility companies have commissioned proof of concept studies and are actively assessing the benefits of using drones. However, the transition to a flourishing commercial industry is woefully slow by most predictions.
"Today we face a new, high profile and largely unproven group of unmanned aircraft and operators evolving in an environment of unprecedented industry safety"
An additionally category in this second tier is agriculture. Originally seen by many as an industry that could comprise up to 80 percent of the commercial market, the current reality falls well short of that. The technology is available to perform a variety of crop and yield assessment tasks and yet the take-up among farmers has been very low. Why would a farmer need to be told by a drone operator that an area of their farm was overly wet? Chances are the farmer has been aware of that fact for generations.
Part of the problem is that the technology is evolving before our eyes. It is hard to commit significant investment to a particular drone, payload or service provider if something more sophisticated is right around the corner.
Lastly, we have the tier three group of visionaries. These are the high profile companies looking to develop systems able to perform package delivery, deliver internet services or perform long distance flights beyond the visual sight of the operator. This is where many companies see a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The use cases are endless. It is not only about pizza delivery, but includes valuable functions such as search and rescue, fire prevention and cross-country pipeline inspections. Of course, the aircraft used for such missions will tend to be bigger with longer flight duration and will encroach more frequently on the airspace currently used by manned aircraft.
What is holding this tier three category of the industry back? Broadly speaking, there is no regulatory framework to support the use of unmanned aircraft in the United States when flown beyond visual line of site of the operator. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), together with several working groups, is striving to develop a safe environment for manned and unmanned aircraft to coexist in the National Airspace System (NAS). How this will ultimately look (integration or segregation, for example) will take some time to unravel, but the commitment is there.
In the meantime, the rules for the operation of small unmanned aircraft (under 55lbs) for commercial use within visual line of sight were established in August 2016 under Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations. These rules permit operators to perform an unlimited range of commercial flights so long as they comply with limitations such as staying below 400 feet above ground level and not flying directly overhead people who are not involved in the drone’s operation. Operators (pilots) are required to pass a rudimentary written test. Once qualified, pilots can fly drones weighing up to 55lbs—heavier than a large sack of potatoes, and with significantly sharper edges.
Naturally, those trying to establish commercial enterprises want to push the barrier and fly further, faster and higher. While the FAA is issuing waivers for such flights, these are limited in number and heavily restricted in scope; and likely to remain so for some time.
Part of the barrier to regulating flights beyond visual line of sight is that in the United States, 2017 marked the sixth straight year without a single person being fatally injured on a commercial flight.
Against that backdrop, the FAA’s task is even more challenging. Aviation has always been an inherently unforgiving mode of transport. The risks can be high and the accidents, when they occur, tend to be headline-grabbing events.
Commercial aviation has evolved over the last 100 years, during which time there have been milestones such as the introduction of the jet engine, supersonic aircraft and multi-level passenger aircraft. These developments came with their own set of challenges.
Today we face a new, high profile and largely unproven group of unmanned aircraft and operators evolving in an environment of unprecedented industry safety. Managing this evolution is a challenge for both the drone community and regulators.
Accidents have occurred. As a provider of insurance products designed specifically for drone users, Global Aerospace has managed the aftermath of a large number of accidents. Human error is involved in a significant percentage of claims but issues such as signal interference and system malfunction are also present.
The commercial drone industry has come a long way in a few short years, but the enormous potential is still to be realized. Commercial opportunities will continue to develop, as will the regulatory framework to support the safe and sustainable growth of this nascent industry.