The commercial potential of drones

Tom Standage suggests ways to unlock drones’ commercial potential, and stay safe


Take a look at the sky on a cloudless day. What do you see? Maybe a plane or two, but possibly nothing at all. Drone enthusiasts think this is a huge missed opportunity.

They imagine a future in which autonomous flying machines buzz to and fro, gathering data, taking pictures and delivering things. Already, drones survey building sites, scan fields of crops and perform dazzling light shows. After the hurricanes of 2017, they took to the air to assess the damage. Most people still think of these contraptions either as hobbyists’ toys or military tools, but a wide range of commercial uses is quietly emerging. There is even talk of using drones as flying wind turbines to generate power, as telecoms relays to extend internet access or as flying taxis that whisk people from place to place.

Such a future depends as much on regulatory progress as on technological prowess. Legal restrictions are only just starting to be relaxed. Rules introduced by America’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2016 were a big step forward. Commercial use of drones had previously been possible only with special permits that were costly and time-consuming to obtain; the FAA brought in a standard licensing process which has since been copied in other countries. Yet those rules still only allow commercial drones to operate in daylight, below 400 feet (122 metres), within sight of an operator and away from people. Flying over a building site at night, let alone delivering packages in a populated area, is forbidden. In 2018 new rules will extend what commercial drones are allowed to do.

The big change will be the introduction of remote identification, a sort of licence-plate system for drones that enables them to identify themselves. The FAA’s proposed rules for how to do this (by broadcasting radio messages in a standard format), due by the end of 2017, will become formal regulations in 2018. When you know who is operating a drone it becomes much easier to apply existing laws to its use, says Brendan Schulman of DJI, the world’s largest dronemaker. It will also open the way for regulations allowing drones to fly at night and over people. European regulators are expected to issue their own rules for remote ID in 2018. America will also launch an airspace-approval system, to automate the process of applying for permits to fly in controlled airspace (for example, over a building site in an urban area).

If fleets of drones are to fly beyond the line of sight of a human supervisor, drones must be able to report their position and flightpath to a central register, and maintain communication links back to their control stations. New systems and standards for automated air-traffic control are being developed, along with mobile networks that can provide coverage in the skies, not just on the ground. Further progress will be made in 2018, but building the whole system is likely to take three to five years, says Dave Buhrman of Airware, which makes drone-management software. Package delivery beyond visual line of sight is the “holy grail” for many drone companies, he says, but it is still some way off. 

The country to keep an eye on in 2018 is Japan, predicts Greg McNeal of AirMap, another drone startup. “Japan will be one of the first countries to make way for routine drone deliveries, and probably sooner than we think,” he says. Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, has set the ambitious goal of allowing drone deliveries in Tokyo in time for the Olympics in 2020. Drone deliveries between rural post offices are already planned for 2018, to compensate for a shortage of workers.

Now that’s what I call cloud computing

What can regulators do to ensure that drones fulfil their potential quickly, without compromising safety? Harmonisation in areas such as remote ID would ensure that drones do not have to follow different rules in different countries. To promote innovation in safety features, regulators should take a risk-based approach—considering the severity and likelihood of injury, as they do with cars—rather than mandating the use of specific technologies. A “micro” category, allowing unlicensed use of drones below a particular mass (500 grams, say) for commercial purposes, might also spur innovation, just as unlicensed spectrum allowed Wi-Fi networks to flourish. And governments should support the development of automated air-traffic control systems, needed to co-ordinate the movement of thousands of drones in a safe manner.

Drones require careful regulation because of the danger they pose to life and limb, and new rules will be put in place gradually. For entrepreneurs accustomed to the “build it first, regulate it later” mentality of the internet era—and for people who yearn for air-delivered pizza—this process can seem frustratingly slow. But take a step back and consider the longer view. It is hard to believe that human-piloted flight will still be the norm by 2050. The triumph of the drones is just a matter of when, not if.

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Credit: Dave Simonds
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