drone in sunrise (Alexey Yuzhakov/Shutterstock.com)

Drones ready for takeoff

“Five years from now, we will look back to a world before and after drones,” predicted Steve Sarnecki, vice president of federal and public sector at OSIsoft.

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The company’s software collects and analyzes sensor data and makes it more accessible. In recent months, Sarnecki said his customers have been deploying unmanned aerial systems in new ways to gather data. The electrical power, oil and gas industries, for instance, are using them to gather images and sensor data on their infrastructure.

And Sarnecki is not alone.

So far, the Federal Aviation Administration reports it has received more than 770,000 registrations in a little over 15 months.  The FAA is projecting a jump to more than 4 million hobbyist and commercial drones by 2020, according to its most recent Aerospace Forecast. The largest market for drones, according to that forecast, is industrial inspection of the kind cited by Sarnecki. Government is the smallest market, making up just 2 percent of the total.

That forecast, moreover, was published prior to the FAA’s release of new rules that make it easier to use drones for commercial purposes. The finalization of those rules -- Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations -- means potential users are free to put drones to work as long as they respect the new guidance. Previously, would-be commercial users had to get a certificate of waiver or authorization, which is a more involved process.

Some people have been critical of parts of the new regulations, including the rule that pilots must keep their drones within line of sight, but the FAA hinted in its forecast that this will likely change.

“The overall demand for commercial UAS will soar once regulations more easily enable beyond visual line of sight operations and operations of multiple [drones] by a single pilot,” the forecast states. “Once a framework is enabled for BVLOS operations, the projected market sizes could be higher than the forecast.”

Governments in several states are already working on infrastructure to handle drone flight beyond line of sight. Ohio and North Dakota have invested in sense-and-avoid systems, and North Dakota has also provided grant funding for a company to develop a regional aviation-grade network service specifically for UAS operations that can scale to the entire state.

So pipeline inspections and aerial photography are only the beginning. Other innovative uses of drones include Virginia Tech’s experiments with deploying unmanned systems for food delivery in a partnership with Chipotle. Viewers saw the bleeding edge of drone technology during this year’s Super Bowl halftime show when an Intel-coordinated swarm of 300 drones put on a light show. In addition, Otherlab used funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to create a disposable cardboard drone that could one day be used in disaster-relief efforts (the final design will be made of biodegradable material). And of course there is Amazon’s plan to deliver goods by drone.

Similarly, government use cases are quickly expanding beyond military-oriented and intelligence-gathering missions, so that area seems primed for growth as well. Furthermore, government officials and researchers are already looking into using drones to inspect infrastructure, track animals or even catch runaway criminals.

Over the drone horizon

Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, said Part 107 has encouraged users to try out drones in creative ways.

“Now that [regulations] are in place, it could become easier for government agencies to use drones,” he added.

The enthusiasm for drone-driven missions is likely to continue, Gettinger said. And as for what the next round of innovations will look like, he suggested two places to look: swarms and automation.

The military has been doing a great deal of research with drone swarms, and Intel’s Super Bowl display demonstrated their potential for high-tech fireworks, but the technology has yet to make it into the mainstream. “It’s a bit beyond the horizon at the moment,” he said.

Then there is the move toward automation, or self-flying drones. Consumer drones can already track their users without the operator touching the controls, but full automation is still finding its way into the market. But Gettinger said it’s just a matter of time.

“I think autonomy is the golden egg in many respects,” he said.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a reporter/producer at GCN.

Before joining GCN, Leonard worked as a local reporter for The Smithfield Times in southeastern Virginia. In his time there he wrote about town council meetings, local crime and what to do if a beaver dam floods your back yard. Over the last few years, he has spent time at The Commonwealth Times, The Denver Post and WTVR-CBS 6. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received the faculty award for print and online journalism.

Leonard can be contacted at mleonard@gcn.com or follow him on Twitter @Matt_Lnrd.

Click here for previous articles by Leonard.


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