Commercial and civil drones will be flying in U.S. skies. That fact is inevitable – technological progress in the 21st century has become a deluge of advancements, upgrades and improvements. Drones are just part of the storm. The aircraft offer too many beneficial applications to not become a factor in American life, and the burgeoning drone industry has the potential to be quite profitable.
What remains in doubt is when and how drones will be integrated into the national airspace system (NAS). The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has a complex task at hand, and industry observers are uncertain as to when unmanned aerial systems (UAS) will be flying overhead.
Michael Blades, aerospace and defense senior industry analyst at market research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, does not believe the FAA will publish complete guidelines for commercial and civil small UAS operations by the end of this year. The agency – spurred by Congress via the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 to develop a plan for the safe integration of drones into the NAS by Sept. 30, 2015 – expects to finalize a proposal for small UAS operations before year-end.
Blades instead thinks the FAA will issue the regulations for drones under 55 pounds incrementally, ‘probably a little later than November,’ in order to have ‘something piecemeal to appease commercial operators.’ He does envision that the full rules for small UAS will be in place by the end of 2015.
So, when the FAA does have its regulations set for small UAS, what might the procedure be by which operators are allowed to fly their aircraft legally? Blades offers his thoughts.
‘My guess is [the FAA] is going to have some sort of process where you have an identification number that you need to put on your small UAS,’ he says. ‘It would be like getting a driver's license.’ He adds that operators may have to prove that they can competently control a UAS at a test site – something akin to passing a driver's test.
Blades notes that the FAA may use Australia as a model. The country already has a standard authorization system for commercial UAS operations, and according to Blades, Australia has more than 70 different approvals.
Once commercial and civil drone regulations begin to emerge in the U.S., agriculture could be the first industry to realize the benefits of UAS. Blades theorizes that the FAA may first establish rules for farmers out of practicality.
‘If you're flying something over your own fields or your own area for your own business purposes, you don't have to worry about the privacy issues or the safety issues,’ he explains. ‘How many farms are next to airports?’
Although Blades thinks that the agricultural market will be big, he concedes that it may ramp up slowly. He anticipates that it will be incumbent upon companies to make a full-fledged effort to ‘sell’ UAS technology to farmers – in other words, companies may have to convince farmers that drones are worth their while.
And it may not be as simple as farmers purchasing UAS platforms to use on their own. Rather, Blades imagines companies will have to offer full-service, end-to-end capabilities.
‘Farmers are not going to want a platform,’ he contends. ‘They're going to want somebody to fly over, get information, reduce that data and tell them exactly what they need to do. Farmers will want the end product, the end data.’
UAS applications, of course, do not end with farming. In the short term, Blades cites law enforcement agencies and first responders as the largest markets after agriculture. Inspection, surveying, mapping and construction services are among the numerous other sectors that will soon make use of drone technology.
‘Everything else can be categorized as 'other,'’ Blades suggests. ‘There are so many applications. There are so many things that people aren't thinking about.’