Drone use in the U.S. has exploded since 2016. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported over 1 million registered drones in 2016 and estimates that number to increase to about 3.5 million by 2021. Between 2016 and 2021, the number of registered commercial drones in the U.S. is expected to grow from about 42,000 to 442,000. Improved technology and increased availability of drones have offered businesses a reasonable cost option for easy access to data and practical solutions for improved efficiency, productivity and safety. Anticipated regulatory updates, including with regard to air traffic management, will ensure the long-term viability of this developing innovation.
The use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly known as drones, began with the military but eventually expanded to both hobbyists and commercial industries. Drones are widely used in agriculture, film-making and photography, and construction. Additionally, there is increased growth in drone use by the industrial, security, communication and insurance sectors. Further expansion of their use is expected in medicine, disaster recovery, transportation and marketing.
Drones have enabled the potential for precision agriculture allowing for better crop management by helping to identify and respond to changing conditions, and even allowing for more efficient planting and fertilization. Drones are capable of covering large areas of land with speed and precision
Likewise, in construction and infrastructure, drones are able to access vast, remote and challenging sites to assist in planning and designing projects, tracking their progress and providing ongoing monitoring and maintenance, with less endangerment of workers. PwC determined that on average, the number of life threatening accidents on construction sites monitored by drones was reduced by up to 91%. Paired with 3D printing technology, drones are even able to make repairs in hazardous conditions at lower cost and risk. Wind turbines, cell towers and bridges are able to be inspected and repaired using drones at a fraction of the normal cost.
Within the insurance industry, drones may be used to predict, prevent and assess losses. Data gathered from drones may be used to monitor high risk areas. Quick, accurate and inexpensive data capturing allows for improved underwriting, loss prevention and claims handling, thus improving outcomes, reducing fraud and increasing customer satisfaction through more efficient compensation.
With improvements to drone energy sources and other technology, drones are expected to become an invaluable delivery resource. Regular use for retail delivery is anticipated. However, drones are also beginning to be used more and more in delivery of medicine, blood, vaccines, and even medical equipment, to remote or disaster affected sites. In the area of communications, drones may be used as mobile cellular service units in support of highly populated events, as well as catastrophes.
Expanded Use Requires Additional Oversight
The potential for commercial drone use appears limitless. However, growing use also requires additional oversight to address safety and privacy concerns.
2016 Streamlined FAA Rules
In 2016, the FAA issued streamlined rules for commercial drone use. Prior to these rules, commercial drone operation was limited to licensed airplane or helicopter pilots with a 333 Exemption, involving a lengthy and costly process. These requirements were replaced by the FAA’s Small UAS Rule, also known as Part 107, which addresses most commercial drone use. Part 107 requires that commercial use drones be registered with the FAA. Registration costs $5 and is valid for three years.
The FAADroneZone is an easy to navigate website which allows users to register drones, apply for use waivers and authorizations, report drone accidents and stay up to date on current drone use requirements. Commercial use is defined as any use which promotes a business interest. Operators must obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate which requires passing an initial aeronautical knowledge test. Certificates are valid for two years. The Part 107 rules which apply to drones weighing less than 55 pounds, set forth several operational limitations, including in part, requiring that the drone:
- Remain within the operators’ or observers’ visual line-of-sight (VLOS)
- Be operated only during the day
- Not be operated over any persons not directly participating in the operation, not under a covered structure and not from a moving vehicle or aircraft
- Yield right of way to other aircraft
- Remain no higher than 400 feet above ground level or within 400 feet of a structure
- Not carry hazardous materials
- Be operated in minimum weather visibility of 3 miles
- Be operated in certain airspace only with requested permission.
Waivers to these limitations may be obtained upon request and technological demonstration that such operation may be conducted safely. Sufficient advance time is generally required in order to obtain a waiver. However, authorization to fly in restricted airspace may be obtained in real time through the FAA’s Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) program.
Recently Proposed Rules
On January 14, 2019, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chou announced that the FAA would be publishing proposed rules to allow operation of drones without a waiver over people or at night if certain conditions are met. The new rules would be tied with updated requirements to enable tracking and identification of drones for safety and security under an integrated national airspace system.
Privacy and Information Security
Although the FAA rules do not address privacy concerns, both state and local laws may impose certain privacy related requirements. Also, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has issued voluntary best practices for information security in drone use, such as giving notice to those nearby, blurring faces in collected images and collecting only the data needed. It should be noted that like any computer system, drones may be hacked and require measures to ensure secure transmission of data, as well as updated software and malware protection.
With proper use, drones may have significant beneficial impact on commercial activities, including saving of time, money and resources while yielding improved outcomes. Thus, their potential uses, from the analytical to the practical, may be expected to continue to evolve and amplify.