What is Stopping the Surge in Drones?

We are constantly hearing about the huge potential of drones and have been waiting to see this put into action. With the drone buzz that we see in the media we know that drones can be used for countless applications and are excited to see such an advancement in technology put into action. However, as of yet, we have not witnessed a large-scale implementation of drones into our daily operations. Here, we present some of the reasons for this.

Tight Regulations

For drone operations to be fully functional on a large scale, many important factors are involved, such as data analysis, sensors and in particular, security and safety. Due to regulations, drones are operated within the line of sight (LOS), so that they can always be seen. Many applications would be better off from operating drones beyond line of site (BLOS), for example delivery drones, yet the regulatory protocols are still not in place.

Despite huge advancements in technology, regulators still seem to be afraid of the drone. Why is this? Firstly, is the concern of an individual’s privacy, specifically, taking information about an individual and their private space as drones fly overhead. There have been several cases of privacy violation from drones reported in the news, for example a man was charged with eavesdropping after operating a drone over a neighbour’s property. Secondly, are issues related to the security of the data carried by the drone. If connections are not secure, software components are exposed to hacks. With just $40 of software, it is possible to hack drones that cost thousands of dollars with poor encryption. In addition, drones that are used to deliver goods can be a source of surveillance. It is reported that Amazon’s delivery drones have the intention of capturing data from their customers for marketing purposes. Lastly, is the concern of accidents occurring, for example collisions with other aerial vehicles. There have been cases of drones flying too close to, and even crashing into helicopters and aeroplanes.

The FAA (Federal Avian Administration) in the US has issued a set of regulations, Part 107, that are generally followed by other countries, for commercial drone operators to follow. These include flying only during the day and within LOS.

Changing Policies

Regulators are slowly understanding that they should be more in-tune with the demands of the drone industry. It is becoming clear that in order to unleash the full potential of autonomous platforms for ground, air and sea applications, BLOS operations need to be introduced, not only to meet the needs of the drone applications and users, but also to increase cost efficiency. For example, the FAA has issued approximately 1440 waivers for commercial drones, these include the waiver for maintaining LOS operations, as well as the operation of multiple small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and flying over individuals not directly involved in the operation. Such waivers allow regulators to test out new rules before they are officially set.

Safety First

Research is projecting that in 2019, there will be a rise in commercial drone usage. However, currently, there is still a difference in point of view between the drone industry and regulators. Having said this, the drone industry is doing its best to convince regulators to be more open, by for example, assuring safety through testing and risk-based analysis, and designing full-proof emergency protocols. This includes drones mounted with a parachute in the case of an emergency, dedicated flying routes, the ability to carry on flying if parts fail and designing drones small enough that injury to an individual would be minimal.

A major issue for regulators is the detect and avoid (DAA) system of drones for avoiding collisions, particularly for BLOS. In addition to other aerial vehicles, drones have also crashed into buildings and even with birds. The FAA needs to be assured that the UAV has the security system equal to that of having a pilot onboard. In addition to this, an efficient air traffic system needs to be established. Currently, the automated unmanned aerial systems traffic management (UTM) system is being developed, with UTM regulations to be set by the FAA in 2019. The UTM uses a collision avoiding system, long range communication and data exchange.

It is clear that drones with a robust, secure and safe control system have the potential to rapidly integrate into our daily routines. The technology is here, and it offers a robust, highly secured and encrypted communication which can avoid obstructions in N-LOS and urban areas. However, the regulations are also here. Regulators and the drone industry need to work together to allow this potential to become a reality, as well as to increase research, competitive advantages and innovation within the drone industry. Collaboration, integration and cooperation is key between the two entities.

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