Infrastructure inspection, precision agriculture, security, logistics, catastrophe response—every day we read that drones are disrupting another industry and changing the way people conduct business. Advanced technology and more open commercial drone regulations are driving these changes, and a future in which we rely on drones for many tasks that are “dirty, dull, and dangerous” for humans seems more like an imminent reality than a sci-fi dream.
At Measure, we’ve found the commercial drone industry is leaving the “late proof-of-concept” stage. Many use cases have been thoroughly tested, real return on investment demonstrated, and now drone service operators are starting to take applications to scale. Businesses have started taking advantage of the empowering data and cost savings drones provide, but there are plenty of technological and regulatory developments still to come that will accelerate the commercial drone industry. Measure believes the following advances will have the biggest impact:
Increased artificial intelligence capability in drone autopilot computers will improve the consistency of certain repetitive operations, such as some types of structural inspection, and allow drones to perform more of a given mission without human assistance. In time, we may experience a world where operators manage fleets of drones from centralized command centers in much the same way modern air traffic controllers manage manned aviation today.
Beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations:
The holy grail of linear infrastructure (including power lines, railroads, highways, pipelines), BVLOS operations were previously only permitted overseas, with limited experimental exceptions in the U.S. However, under the FAA’s new Part 107 waiver system, U.S.-based operators have started to receive permission to fly over the horizon, opening up a new market for commercial drones.
Control & datalink via cell towers:
Being able to control a drone via cell tower would enable a drone to be flown from nearly anywhere. Increased link stability over long distances is practically mandatory for successful BVLOS operations; new developments on this front promise to make applications like package delivery a reality.
Miniaturization and falling prices of advanced payloads such as LiDAR and chemical “sniffers” will open up a wealth of new industrial uses for drones and improve operational safety and stability.
Overhead & night operations:
Now legal under the Part 107 waiver program, operations over people and at night present plenty of benefits. Thermal sensors can be used more effectively at night for some applications and allowing flights over people will create opportunities for powerful news videography.
While the drone industry’s future certainly looks bright, we also foresee several challenges to overcome:
BVLOS flights, navigation at night, and flights over people require operational mastery of the aircraft, detailed safety procedures, and advanced understanding of the national airspace. Professional service providers like Measure have systems in place to ensure operational safety and security, but ultimately the FAA must determine who is responsible enough to perform these advanced operations.
Spectrum rights & restrictions:
A limited amount of frequencies in an increasingly wireless world means that the battle for broadcast space will be fierce. Operators will have to carve out their own space in the spectrum or figure out how to work with interests ranging from telecommunications companies to the Department of Defense.
International regulatory convergence:
Getting everyone in one country to agree on safe and sensible regulations is hard enough. Getting 200+ countries to agree is several orders of magnitude more difficult. But if commercial drones ever want to reach their full potential, interested parties from around the world will have to come together to set some sensible international rules that we can all live by.
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