These are interesting times in the drone industry right now. Aerial technology is proving itself useful in all kinds of industries: conserving organizations' time and money, providing accessible insights and even saving the occasional life.
But the impact of drones has and will always be closely linked to the regulations governing their use. And rightly so; applications should be thought through before take-off and operate within parameters that put safety first.
That's why a handful of programs and issues in the US at the moment are so interesting. Drone operations are tightly regulated. Frameworks exist that govern the what, where, when and how of all flights, from altitude and time of day to line of sight and location.
And while guidelines from the FAA have sought to find a balance between safety and innovation, some have argued that more freedom and flexibility is needed for the industry to move forward.
Which brings us to four recent topics that are on industry minds at the moment: The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program, the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC), Remote Identification and the Reauthorization Bill.
The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program
You may have heard about pilot schemes that have been given the green light to explore drone applications around the country. The news is part of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program.
Sure, they could have thought of a more catchy name, but companies including Microsoft, Apple and Uber getting waivers to push the boundaries of drone technology is something the industry should be excited about. There have been ten successful applications from state, local and tribal governments so far. Each is partnering with a technology provider to explore drone applications that are otherwise off the table in the U.S., such as deliveries, operations at night, over people and beyond line of sight.
The principle behind the directive signed by President Trump last year is a simple one. Without data, trials and pilot schemes, lawmakers have little to go on when devising more expansive regulations for commercial drone use. And without access to US skies to test their concepts and technologies, companies will move elsewhere to innovate.
Apple will be using drones to gather aerial imagery with North Carolina's Department of Transportation; Flirtey will be testing medical supply delivery to heart attack victims in Nevada; FedEx will be using drones to inspect its aircraft in Tennessee; Uber is stepping up its air-taxi ambitions and trialling aerial food delivery in California. The company’s chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi has pointed out that “we need flying burgers”. Amen to that.
And that's just the start. You can read about all of the pilot programs that have received approval so far here.
Although only a tiny minority of drone pilots fly where and when they shouldn't, several high-profile incidents have drawn attention to a big issue faced by law enforcement: How can you track down a pilot breaking the rules when there is no direct link to the aircraft involved?
The answer to that question necessitates some kind of remote identification. Following a report put together by an Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) made up of industry stakeholders last year, the FAA is said to be fast-tracking its efforts to launch legislation that would establish remote identification requirements for drone aircraft.
It's likely that this will feature some kind of broadcasting technology. Each drone will communicate a unique signal that can be scanned by enforcement officials to locate and track the drone in question, and discover the identity and whereabouts of the pilot.
But the thinking behind remote identification is bigger than just tracking down rule-breakers. It's about having drones communicate their position and intentions as part of a wider push to safely integrate them into the airspace. It's central to any future vision of large, autonomous drones performing tasks and buzzing around without human control.
One of the issues facing commercial pilots right now is that certain sections of the airspace are off limits without an exemption from the FAA. Often this takes a long time to organize, which can make flying legally and at short notice difficult, if not impossible.
To rectify this, the FAA is looking to test Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC), with a number of drone industry partners. The hope is that pilots will be able to provide the necessary information via a virtual portal and get an instant nod to fly.
According to the FAA, the LAANC system “will ultimately provide near real-time processing of airspace authorization requests for unmanned aircraft (UAS) operators nationwide. The system is designed to automatically approve most requests to operate in specific areas of airspace below designated altitudes.”
This year the FAA is going to release over 2,000 square miles of new airspace for drones to fly in. Companies already given the green light by the FAA to provide LAANC Services include AirMap, Project Wing, Rockwell Collins and Skyward.
The FAA's Reauthorization
Drone industry stakeholders are currently waiting for Congress to pass the 2018 FAA Reauthorization package into law. One of the most important parts of this will be addressing the elephant in the room: Section 336, which currently prevents the FAA from putting into place new regulations for recreational pilots.
Section 336 was put in place six years ago to protect model aircraft communities enjoying their hobby safely and to help foster an environment of innovation. However, with the rise of quadcopters, certain gray areas have become evident in the Section 336 wording. Who counts as a hobbyist? What is a community-based organization? What constitutes a shared framework of rules?
Nobody really knows the answers to these questions, and so clarification is needed to ensure that recreational pilots are subject to regulations going forward, such as that of remote identification and registration.
Some stakeholders have called for a repeal of Section 336, while others, such as the AMA, fiercely defend it. The right way forward probably lies somewhere in the middle, as there's little doubt that tweaking is needed for the sake of clarity moving forwards. Congress is dealing with that one right now.
Those are just a few of the topics high on the list of industry stakeholders at the moment. Now that you're familiar with those, you're just about ready to take the leap and find out how you can become a professional DroneBase pilot.