Up until 2013, most people had only heard about drones in a morbid military context of grisly images and unflattering media coverage.
That is, until Jeff Bezos came along. In December of that year, the founder of Amazon displayed an Octocopter — a type of Unmanned Aerial System or UAS, as they are referred to — on Charlie Rose. He claimed that the Octocopter would be used to delivery packages in the future.
And, the Internet lit up.
The show generated much online discussion. In turn, this put pressure on the FAA to come out with guidelines for commercial use of drones. The agency relented and, last week, it came out with a set of proposals for the commercial use of unmanned UAS.
Inspired by similar regulation in countries such as Australia and Canada, the proposals restrict commercial drone flight to daylight, and a height of 500 feet. In addition, drones must be within the operator’s visual line of sight (or, within that of a network of operators). Operators are required to self-certify and can only use drones that weigh under 55 pounds for commercial operations. Finally, the maximum speed of commercial drones cannot exceed 87 knots (or, approximately 45 miles) per hour.
The proposals are long overdue. Commercial drones represent an untapped business opportunity. According to research from Business Insider, the commercial drone market is expected to be worth approximately $11 billion or 12% of the overall $98 billion pie in the next decade. Another research consultancy, Lux Research, estimates that commercial drones will be a $1.7 billion market opportunity by 2025. In its report, the research consultancy lists a number of uses for commercial drones, with precision agriculture and media (to take aerial shots of drones) being their most popular commercial use.
Given the market size and the government’s willingness to move the needle, reaction from the industry has been enthusiastic. Major organizations related to the industry welcomed the proposals. Calling the proposals “a critical milestone,” Brian Wynne, President and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), said they were a “good first step in an evolutionary process that brings us closer to realizing the many societal and economic benefits of UAS technology.”
“We lucked out,” said Patrick Egan, editor of sUAS News and drone enthusiast. According to him, the drone industry’s growth is similar to that of the Internet during its early days, with a fast-emerging ecosystem of enthusiasts and services.
Regulations, however, have not kept pace with the technology’s growth. Commercial drone operators and hobbyists require exemptions to make use of their drones. And, the FAA has been tardy in doling out the exemptions: Only about 28 exemptions have been granted from about 325 requests. The current set of rules removes the arbitrary nature of the exemption process. According to Egan, the full potential of drone technology will not be realized until rules are set in place. “A rule is a baseline,” he said.
The FAA proposals have also received criticism from e-commerce delivery companies such as Amazon, because they make it impossible for them to deliver products using drones. But, regulation pertaining to delivery of drones will take time because it requires a fine balance between privacy and safety issues concerning the use of drones.
Here are three things that the FAA did not address in its proposals for commercial drones last week.
1. Beyond visual line of sight rules
The proposals do not allow drones to be flown beyond line of sight.
In simple words, this means that drone commercial drone operations must be conducted within the line of sight of its operators. As you can probably guess, this severely restricts a drone operator’s perimeter and scope of operations. The FAA has not defined rules for beyond visual line of sight for good reason: There have been a number of accidents and collisions with commercial drones around the world.
The main sticking point in establishing these rules is the absence of a quantifiable human “Detect and Avoid” rule to avoid air collisions. This is a recurring problem within the Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) industry. For example, there is no guideline or defined distance in the current set of FAA proposals to avert collisions. “Until that (a quantifiable distance to avert collisions) is determined, we don’t know how a mechanical solution will work,” explained Egan.
Amazon and other similar vendors working on delivery drones will rely on a network of autonomous drones to deliver packages. By removing human operators, Amazon’s autonomous drones will remove cost components associated with humans and ensure a quick and scalable supply chain delivery. But, the Seattle-based company will have to wait for FAA guidelines before incorporating the “Detect and Avoid” rule in its software.
2. Drone software and hardware certifications
Software and hardware certifications are mandatory because safety is a paramount concern in the aviation industry. Rapid growth of the UAS industry has led to introduction of a number of new software and hardware certifications. But, the certifications may cause problems for organizations or systems still dealing with legacy code.
For example, DO-178C, the latest software certification required for drones, makes it mandatory for data items to be traceable within a code. This means that each field or parameter used in high level code, whether it is related to the user interface or passing on an input value for further calculations to low-level code, has to be traceable. This can be relatively simple in systems designed using the new guidelines.
However, systems with legacy code will find it difficult to implement this requirement because their code already contains multiple modules. Older code with multiple modules can be problematic because it can be difficult to isolate errors. In addition to causing serious safety issues, the costs of maintaining and deploying such code also increases.
3. Privacy problems
Like most new technology, drones have also come under the privacy scanner. The privacy question was pushed into the spotlight with the Snowden revelations in 2013, and so far regulators don’t seem to have a clear answer when it comes to drones.
According to the Lux Research report on drones, UAVs will likely “be held to the same standards of privacy as news and helicopters” and many privacy restrictions will be “operated on good faith” of drone operators. In simple words, this means that there are no laws to govern privacy restrictions currently. This is mainly because drone technology is not yet sophisticated enough to guarantee a reliable and consistent flight experience.
Until the industry reaches a defined level of consistency in safety standards, privacy will be a back burner issue for aviation agencies in most countries.