Drones 2020: Hello Tomorrow



Unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones, are receiving a lot of attention lately.  In some cases for good reasons, such as the successful nighttime rescue of 4 skiers lost in western Canada through the use of a drone equipped with a thermal camera; and in other cases, for less well-intentioned objectives, such as ISIS using drones to drop IEDs on Coalition forces.  Whether for good or bad, the concept of flying robots has captured the imagination of the public, as well as raised a host of questions and concerns.  To be clear, the drones to which we are referring are officially denominated as sUAS (small unmanned aircraft systems).  These are not large, military-grade MQ-1 Predators or MQ-9 Reapers carrying 800 pound munition payloads, rather this class of UAVs is restricted to less than 55 pounds “wet”, which includes all peripherals.  This is also the class of UAS that commercial operators can fly under the newly established FAA Part 107 remote pilot license.  So, one question that is often posed is “why all the fuss?”.

There are several answers to this question.  From an economic point of view, this burgeoning technology is estimated to develop into a commercial industry most recently valued at $127 Billion USD by PriceWaterhouseCoopers.  Even if this figure is off by an order of magnitude, the number is still significant.  The main reason why the industry holds such potential is the immediate cost-saving nature of flying a drone that costs $1,000 for the entire system versus the traditional means of collecting data via helicopter at $5,000 per day.  This coupled with the safety implications of not putting human beings up in the air where accidents are simply a statistical reality, makes flying unmanned aircraft extremely attractive across a tremendous number of industries.

From an employment perspective, AUVSI (Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International) projected that the UAS industry will create 70,000 jobs in the United States over the next 3 years.  With an average annual salary estimated at $100,000, it becomes more understandable why so many folks are jumping into the business of drones.

Finally, from a privacy and safety vantage, concerns are mounting as more and more UAVs take flight.  The FAA calculates that 7,000,000 drones will be operating in US airspace by 2020.  Without proper training, it is very easy for a new pilot to make a dangerous mistake.  Purchasing a DJI Phantom at Best Buy, taking it home, and immediately seeing how high it can go is unfortunately all too common.  Couple this with a failure to understand restricted airspace, such as an small general aviation airport or during a firefighting TFR, and the cause for concern is justified.  This is what is deemed a “stupid-actor” scenario, but there is also the risk of “bad actor” scenarios through which an ill-intentioned individual or group can weaponized over-the-counter UAVs and cause significant harm.  To date, there have been guns, flamethrowers, IEDs, aerosol dispersers, and even radioactive material loaded onto drones.

Regulatory agencies, along with the lawmakers who empower them, struggle with how to manage this Jekyll and Hyde technology.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) controls the national airspace (NAS) that unmanned aircraft fly within, but this is a point of contention as well.  The FAA firmly defends their jurisdiction to keep our skies safe, but the subject gets tricky when the parameters of this communal good are defined more specifically.  The FAA contends that this purview begins a few inches off the ground; most people would argue that the airspace in their backyard doesn’t meet the definition of “safely navigable”.  I would agree when you consider the traditional world of manned aircraft (with the exception of crop dusters), but from the perspective of UAS and manned rotorcraft, airspace starting just above the grass presents a potential safety issue if there are multiple aircraft operating in that area, people, animals, etc.  And if that’s the case, then the FAA’s contention that they are responsible for fulfilling their mandate of keeping things safe holds water.  As mentioned, it will take precedent-setting litigation to achieve final resolution on this, as well as a number of other conflicting regulations.

A more pressing issue is that the FAA has never really been in the business of policing.  Fines and revoked credentials are the limited tools they have to wield.  It is not a surprise then that the private sector has quickly begun to fill the gap with myriad counter-UAS solutions.  Ray guns (directed energy emitters), jammers, spoofers, predator drones, nets, and even trained birds of prey are just a few of the solutions making their way to the market.  Alas, in the United States, it is illegal to interfere with the flight of any aircraft, manned or unmanned.  Thus, physical interdiction is off the table.  In addition, the FCC is adamant that interfering/disrupting its airwaves is also not allowed, so redirecting a drone by intercepting its communication signal is not an option either.  At this point in time, numerous sub-groups have been formed to figure out a solution, but that will take time.

The Department of Justice has gone so far as to put a roadblock up regarding two FAA regulations that would have eased the ability for commercial unmanned aircraft (UA) pilots to work.  Both flight over people and regulations regarding micro UAVs have stalled due to the concerns of the DHS, FBI, Intelligence, and law enforcement regarding how to identify drones in the air.  There are numerous technological solutions, but again, they will take time to implement.  One good way to start sorting out “good actors” versus “bad actors” is to simply have unmanned operators file a flight plan.  An UOA (unmanned operating area) is the equivalent of a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) that takes about 30 seconds to create, erases itself following the flight so the system remains current and clean, and is a great way to provide situational awareness to not only other unmanned pilots, but to all of the manned aviation community.  The UASidekick app allows users to easily file these UOAs from their phone or tablet, and the notification is instantly visible in the flight briefing system that 70,000 manned aircraft pilots use each week.  Obviously a “bad actor” wouldn’t use the system, but by understanding who is playing by the rules, identifying rogue flights becomes a much more transparent process.  This coupled with ADS-B technology that has become small enough to be viable on UAVs would allow everyone operating in the national airspace to both “see” and “understand” the intentions of drones in flight.  This is just one of many proposed solutions, but given the potential of this truly disruptive technology, an answer will be achieved.

Based on the assumption that the legal and regulatory framework evolves with the science, what does the near-term future hold for this rapidly evolving technology.  The likely answer is automation, integration and consolidation.

Fully autonomous flight is the future – allowing UAVs to fly missions without requiring a human being to manipulate the “sticks”.  This already exists to some extent with the release of the DJI Phantom 4 Professional, as well as the Yuneec Typhoon H series.  The advances in machine vision and artificial intelligence are truly impressive.  Drones that can not only “see” obstacles in their path, but also have the onboard processing power (at the edge) to develop a successful resolution so that the mission can be completed without manual intervention opens the door to airspace where unmanned and manned aircraft coexist peacefully.  The fact that Intel is investing so much money in their RealSense technology underscores the fact that this is where the future is headed.  Brian Krzanich’s keynote at the AUVSI Xponential conference May 9th, 2017 only reinforced Intel’s commitment to the arena of all things autonomous.   Once the FAA is convinced that an equivalent level of safety has been achieved, they will open the door to UAS operations that go beyond the current limitations of line of sight.  The implication is that Amazon/DHL/FedEx/X (Google) will be able to implement their grand design of drone delivery, and the consumer will have the ability (in certain markets) to receive their online order of items under 5 pounds in less than 60 minutes.  One of Amazon’s value propositions on this front is that the green benefits to be gained by pulling all those vehicles off the road, as well as the petro requirements to fuel them, is staggering.  Imagine a world where you don’t jump in the car to run to the corner store for something, rather it’s delivered to your doorstep without carbon emissions.

UAS integration into the internet of everything is happening now.  Taking the concept of automation to the next level, consider the type of information that will become available when every drone flight is recording information about its environment.  Whether that be a real-time pictures of current traffic conditions, weather, crop growth … or to paint a slightly more troublesome scenario, what times of day your car is parked in front of your home, when you take a jog, who swings by for a visit – you get the picture.  Autonomous vehicles and autonomous drones are traveling on a parallel path; in fact, since the technology is analogous, a number of manufacturers are investing in both markets (see Local Motors).  The idea is that autonomous vehicles will need to have an up-to-the second picture of the roadways in order to operate safely.  Thus, if a box falls off a truck on the interstate, the first vehicle’s camera to notice it feeds that new information into the global database so any other vehicle operating in the vicinity is aware of the potential hazard.  Drones just represent one more node of data collection to feed into this master picture.

Finally, the UAS service industry is going to experience major consolidation.  The current landscape of airborne data-collectors is highly decentralized and unorganized.  An organization that can pull together a national/international network to fulfill UAS work requests will have the economies of scale to dictate pricing, service-level agreements, and ultimately establish a presence in the marketplace that creates major barriers of entry to the “mom and pop” organizations attempting to compete.  Think back to how Walmart effectively eliminated local stores as they moved into each new neighborhood.

What does this all mean for Drones in 2020?

  • A regulatory framework that is consistent and cohesive – not a patchwork of federal, state and municipal laws
  • Policies and procedures defining no fly zones and a codified 2209 framework
  • Public/Private cooperation
  • Technology empowered by artificial intelligence and advanced machine learning
  • Autonomous operations; drones fully integrated into the IoT; and service industry consolidation
  • A future that holds great potential, but also the threat of misuse
  • A very interesting time to be involved with unmanned robotics, whether in the sky, on the ground or under the water

Photo Credit: Mathias Vera Toro

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