Two new sets of drone regulations are being pushed forward by the US FAA and the UK CAA, which are attempting to rein in a market that threatens to cause havoc for existing air traffic. But drones are a huge opportunity for businesses, and a new market for established companies looking to make a transition. Collectively, the nascent drone industry appears in favor of the new plans, although private consumer flights might become more burdensome.
But there are clear problems with completely unregulated drone flights. There have been numerous reports of near-misses between drones and airplanes, but fewer confirmed incidents. France suffered from a spate of drone-breaches at its nuclear power plants, and drones smuggling drugs into prisons has become another point of contention for authorities.
The new UK rules are an attempt to match drones to owners, so that a police force can react more easily should a drone be used in an illegal fashion. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) will now require a registration for any drone weighing more than 250-grams (half a pound), meaning that pretty much all off-the-shelf drones that aren’t simply toys are going to have to be registered. The new rules give the UK police the power to seize drones, as part of their investigations, as well as demand the license details of drone pilots.
The proposed rules (not yet law, but currently a draft bill) will also require that pilots use a drone safety app, most probably the NATS Drone Assist app. Currently, drone operators are required to hold the Permit for Commercial Operations (PfCO), although questions of enforcement mean that many UK pilots don’t bother – seeing it as potentially optional.
In a similar vein, there are questions over how the police are going to enforce already illegal flights. While commercial pilots are likely to comply with requests for permits, and to present licenses when asked, the rules are going to have very little (if any) impact on those flying contraband into prisons.
Similarly, a police force lacks any real enforcement tools for dealing with such crime, as current anti-drone methods aren’t particularly scalable. While trained hawks, shoulder-mounted rifle-style RF jammers, and drone interceptors make for very good PR videos, they haven’t managed to stop the most common breaches.
Trying to enforce spectrum requirements, which would allow sensitive locations to jam the transmissions between drones and their remote controllers, are only going to stop those who don’t know how to move to another band or channel. Software-based blocks, such as those rolled out by DJI, have also been quickly bypassed – giving the likes of DJI a legal defense, but doing little to stop a determined attacker.
In the US, the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) deadline for state applications for the Integration Pilot Program (IPP) has passed. The UAS IPP plans to provide a mechanism to allow states, local authorities, and the private sector, to collaborate with the FAA to develop and enforce UAS regulations.
Intel has been a vocal supporter of the IPP initiative, with Anil Nanduri, VP of Intel’s New Technology Group and GM of UAS, saying “we have already seen drones addressing a range of real-world problems by providing safe access to hard-to-reach locations. Some examples include our work in disaster recovery, asset inspection, and even tracking polar bear populations in the Arctic.”
Nanduri didn’t mention the whale-snot collecting project, a particularly interesting highlight, which provides a previously impossible capability to researchers – able to collect biological data from whales as the expel air from their blowholes. Along with the polar bears, drones are capable of providing scientists with very valuable tools. Intel acquired Ascending Technologies last year to give it a foot-up in the drone business, and plans on selling developer kits to drive new drone designs as a way to sell more silicon.
But in the commercial sector, drones are going to be used primarily to reduce risks to workers, and to make existing operations more efficient. A good example is roof inspections, where a drone with a high-quality camera could carry out the task of a manual inspection in a much smaller time frame, without risking the worker having to climb on what could potentially be a dangerous roof.
For insurers, looking to gather data on the condition of a neighborhood, in the wake of a storm, a drone-based system could carry out the work of a team of workers, and in a safer fashion. In industrial environments, the drones could more safely monitor things like oil and gas infrastructure, or high-voltage generation equipment, and when it comes to their respective distribution infrastructure, using drones to check pipelines and power lines could provide huge time savings.
The drones could also enable the digital transformation of these functions too, piping the images, video, and sensor readings they collect back to a cloud-based application for further analysis. Using an LTE network for ‘real-time’ connections, or relying on WiFi offload or manual uploads, the drones offer a way to easily add this data to a platform in a way that a human worker would not be able to do – such as 360-degree recordings of an oil derrick, or an ultrasound scan of a pipe section.
The viral video of a Chinese team using a drone-mounted flamethrower to burn debris off of a power line provided a striking example of how drones could be used as platforms for tools, and with advances in robotics, the sorts of functions that could be provided by a mechanical arm on a drone are near limitless – cost providing.
And then there are just plain old logistics applications, where drones have proven a cost-effective way to make remote deliveries. One oft-cited use case was Zipline’s medicine deliveries in Rwanda, but delivery companies like UPS and DHL have also explored augmenting their vans and trucks using drones – to cover a wider footprint more quickly. Amazon has made a lot of noise about Prime Air.