Christina Cardoza

May 4, 2016 4:59:48 PM

If you are in the drone industry, it is well known by now the benefits unmanned systems can bring to every sector of the economy. But outside the drone industry, the public has some serious privacy and security fears, which can halt innovation and stop the growth of the industry. In order for the commercial drone space to really grow, the industry needs to take hold of its own future, according to a commercial drone panel at AUVSI’s XPONENTIAL 2016 conference in New Orleans today.

“The industry really holds its future in its own hands,” said Andrew Thurling, director of product safety and mission assurance at AeroVironment. “The fear of invasion of privacy by these devices is powerful. We need to counter that [with] good examples of us doing safe, respectful...and meaningful work.”

Thurling was joined by Said Bakadir, staff product manager for Qualcomm; Tom Hallman, vice president of business development for Approved Technologies; Dave Kroetsch, president and CEO of Aeryon Labs; Biren Gandhi, distinguished engineer and strategist for Cisco; and moderator Ron Stearns, research director for aerospace analytics, on the Commercial UAS Ecosystems plan.

The problem the commercial drone space is currently facing is the lack of commercial-grade equipment, competing agendas of major stakeholders, and the FAA’s uncertainty of timing and regulations, according to Hallman. He said the FAA isn’t really funded to do the task that was put before it, and it is trying to handle a broad and diverse industry with a one-size fits all framework. The commercial-grade equipment is not yet affordable, resulting in the lack of ROI, and major stakeholders have competing agendas.

“There is barely a commercial market yet, but we are really really close, and it is going to be huge,” said Hallman.

With the uncertainly still in the drone market, local agencies are also trying to have a say in what the rules should be in their local communities, but this is only going to complicate the industry even more, according to Thurling. Creating local rules will result in a “patchwork quilt” of rules that will come with unintended consequences, he explained.

“If you are concerned about safety and privacy, the patchwork quilt enables the least safety and the least accountability,” said Hallman. He added that it also makes it difficult for professional drone operators to do business because they will have to learn rules for every area they want to deploy their drones.

In order for the United States to safely integrate drones into the national airspace, Thurling believes we need to change the equipage requirements on manned aircraft, and create a new airspace—one that promotes the value of having a shared low-altitude system.

But it isn’t only the rules and regulations that are holding the commercial drone industry back. “Make all the rules you want, but it is more about the groups that don’t follow them. Those are the ones that are really going to cause us trouble,” said Aeryon Labs’ Kroetsch.

Aeryon Labs’ approach to growing the commercial industry is putting intelligence into the machines so the user doesn’t have to worry about compliance, and by providing smart sensors that have the ability to manage data, fleet and pilots, as well as to provide the ability for remote work.

“We believe the future of drones is tools and not toys, and that the world for the professional market need to look more like aviation than recreation,” Kroetsch said.

Before Qualcomm dips its toes in the commercial industry, the company sees benefits in starting with the consumer side so that people can realize the importance of drones. “In terms of functionality, a lot of people who influence the market don’t know much about it,” said Bakadir. Qualcomm is looking at drones from both the hardware perspective and software perspective, and then the future. “We need to work together to make sure that whatever we come up with, the technologies can be implemented by all of us, and that the FAA feels okay to guarantee the safety of people.”

Once all these pieces come together, businesses can really start to take advantage of the use of drones in order to make a ROI, according to Cisco’s Gandhi. It is not the drones or UAVs themselves that are going to be commodities; it is their ability to collect data that is going to make it easier for businesses to conduct their operations more easily, safely and cost effectively, he explained.

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