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Love them or loathe them, commercial drones are buzzing ever more widely around our skies bringing with them benefits and challenges to the aerospace industry. The benefits are often cited; easy to fly, remotely maneuverable, computer-driven collision-avoidance software, security reconnaissance, medical aid to name but a few.
But what of the challenges? One of the biggest has been the speed of technological development and availability leaving the aerospace industry little time to reflect on something they are partly responsible for. This has resulted in additional challenges; concerns for public safety, a lack of understanding and guidance from regulatory bodies, privacy, security, and more. With commercial aviation focused on delivering against massive backlogs and companies racing to gain a market share in space flight, the commercial drone industry has been left drifting about uncertain on where its place should lie.
Reliability and Feasibility
The current wave of commercial drones have a worse record for failure then drones in the public sector do. 15% of new micro-drones sold in 2018 had bugs that would ground them within 6 months. One of the challenges manufacturers face is in designing drones that meet the current Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) standards in the US. Under FAA rules, commercial drones must fly below 400ft, weigh under 500 pounds, must not exceed 100mph in flight, and yield right of way to manned aircraft. The operator must always be in the line of sight of the drone as well. These standards make designing a commercial drone quite limiting. Complying with the line of sight rule itself is next to impossible. If drones are to be used for things like package deliveries (as Amazon continues to test), then the areas they can deliver to would be severely limited. Designing a drone that is commercially feasible whilst meeting FAA regulations has left many companies scratching their heads. For a drone to have a realistic commercial and logistical value, it would have to go above the 55-pound weight limit and be operated remotely.
New startups around the globe are constantly reinventing short-range transportation. Commercial drones offer a challenge the aerospace industry probably never expected; cyber-security. As it stands, commercial drones are vulnerable to digital hacks allowing unknown operators to take control of a drone. This represents a serious safety and security concern and is in large part responsible for strict drone regulations in the US and EU. However, the proliferation of commercial drones has exposed severe digital limitations within the aviation and aerospace sectors when it comes to digitalization; simply put 1 in 3 companies in the sector are still working offline using antiquated systems and technology that do not meet modern requirements. The industry does not currently have the digital tools necessary to prevent cyber attacks on drones.
Undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges has been in determining regulation for commercial drones. Different countries and territories have different laws and regulatory bodies in place to guide commercial drone usage. In the US, blanket restrictions from the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) have caused discontent and confusion within the aerospace industry. For example, in the UK, FlyLogix recently demonstrated the commercial benefit of using a drone to inspect an offshore unmanned gas production platform in the Irish sea. Operated remotely, the drone successfully traveled 50 nautical miles, returning safely with no incident. Such a flight is not permitted in the US due to the BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line Of Sight) regulation.
Safety and Noise
Another challenge facing the industry revolves around public concerns over the safety and noise of commercial drones. A company called ‘ThrowFlame’ made headlines in the US with its TF-19 Wasp Flamethrower attachment for drones. Whilst it claimed the attachment was not intended as a weapon, the FAA disagreed and issued ThrowFlame a $25,000 fine. Couple this with reports of hobbyists strapping pistols to drones and the aerospace industry has a way to go in assuaging public and government concern over the use of drones in populated areas.
Noise is another challenge the industry faces with the buzzing sound of drones being cited as one of the most annoying things by members of the public. A study conducted by NASA revealed that ground traffic noise was less annoying when compared to commercial drone noise. Despite this, there are positive responses from the aerospace industry to all these concerns. The Commercial Drone Alliance believes that the commercial and public sectors can work together to use drones responsibly and for the greater public good.
We are seeing incredible interest in using drones for public safety at the local, state, and federal levels. Our partnership with DRONERESPONDERS – the world’s fastest-growing non-profit program supporting public safety UAS – will serve to strengthen the ecosystem surrounding how first responders work with industry to deploy drones in the national airspace system.
Lisa Ellman, Executive Director for the Commercial Drone Alliance
The global commercial drone market is set to net $10.280,000,000 by 2022 with their use in construction and archaeology projects to register a compound annual growth rate of 28%. With every smartphone owner having the capability able to operate a drone, the main challenges facing the aerospace industry lie in how quickly they can introduce training, reliable cyber-security systems, durable drone technology, and regulation that protects the privacy and safety of the public.
Sources and Further Reading