The Future of the Drone Economy — Beyond Line of Site

Dawn of a new technological era

You set an alarm on your phone, and every weekday morning it wakes you up. You set another alarm on your phone, and every weekday it wakes up your company’s drones. They spin up their own propellers, take off, perform their daily pre-programmed inspection missions, land, and upload all the data to the cloud. The data is automatically processed and delivered straight to your business and analytics systems. No human required.

It’s not hard to imagine such a world anymore. In fact, it’s almost here.

The Technology

In the last five years drones have crossed over from the realm of engineers and DIY enthusiasts to the shelves of consumer electronics stores, and now they’re making headway into the commercial and industrial market. Along the way they’ve gone from frankenstein’s monsters made of RC parts to ready-to-fly consumer goods outfitted with sense-and-avoid safety technology and premium cameras.

This steady movement away from custom hardware continues in step with broader trends in robotics. Today you can buy purpose-built, fully-integrated systems that will practically fly out of the box. In the future, drones will incorporate advanced technology from a wide range of fields: robotics, sensors, data processing, and beyond. Specifically, innovations in autonomous flight, computer vision, and machine learning will lead to near-total independence from human operators, which to the end user means “easy.” The goal is for drones to become as seamlessly integrated into business systems as a space bar.

Drone in A Box

Today anti-virus software will scan hard drives and servers at a click. Tomorrow it will be the same for drones in the physical world, scanning and inspecting construction sites, structures, farms, forests, mines, quarries, survey sites — any site, of any size, that needs to be looked at early, often, or up-close.

Maybe think of it as a “drone-in-a-box.” Set a timer or launch the drone (or a fleet of them) remotely, and the drone will launch itself, carry out its cached preplanned mission, and land itself back at its “box” to recharge. The drone will send the captured data to the cloud, and the processed data will get piped into your system. The whole operation — camera to cloud — will take minutes, and almost no effort or special training. You’ll be able to focus on analysis, planning, and response. Today’s generation of drone pilot specialists will transition to drone data analysis and action specialists, and the on-demand aerial data economy will be in full swing.

Jobs that can be done autonomously by a drone in a box:

- Safely and accurately inspect cell towers, buildings, and other structures at height

- Monitor crops to assess blight, water distribution, fertilizer distribution, and crop yield

- Monitor construction site status and resources

- Collect data for volumetrics

- Build DEMs, orthomosaics, and 3D models

State of “BLOS” Regulation

We can see the technology isn’t much of a hurdle for an on-demand, fully automated “drone in a box” commercial solution. But technological advancements can’t overcome the bigger hurdle standing in the way: a very specific government regulation.

The “drone in a box” concept has an implicit prerequisite: the drone has to fly beyond the line of sight (BLOS) of a human operator. BLOS operation is relatively easy in terms of technology (using first-person view monitors or goggles, for instance), and many countries — including Australia, Canada, and China — already have BLOS-friendly regulations on the books. The FAA, however, still hasn’t sanctioned BLOS flights in the United States.

Here are the FAA’s current rules about the range of drone flight:

“You must keep your drone within sight. Alternatively, if you use First Person View or similar technology, you must have a visual observer always keep your aircraft within unaided sight (for example, no binoculars). However, even if you use a visual observer, you must still keep your unmanned aircraft close enough to be able to see it if something unexpected happens.” (FAA.gov)

The FAA’s position will change. The economics of drone delivery alone, which Amazon has foregrounded with a massive lobbying effort, will compel the government to find a way to integrate BLOS rules as quickly and safely as it can. It might seem like the FAA is too cautious to adopt drone regulations, but keep in mind the U.S. has by far the world’s busiest and most complex airspace. The recent “Part 107” approval of commercial drone operation has opened that airspace to over 40,000 licensed drone pilots in less than a year. There should be no doubt that the FAA is committed to enabling American businesses to take advantage of drone technology.

We’ve seen good signs. A couple years ago the FAA partnered with CNN and BNSF Railways to launch its “Pathfinder” program dedicated to researching BLOS flight. Then in December 2016 the FAA granted its first BLOS flight permit outside the Pathfinder program to the Northern Plains UAS Test Site in North Dakota, where more companies will be free to develop and test a range of BLOS new applications.

When the FAA sanctions BLOS flights in we’ll see a surge in commercial drone adoption, and the range of potential applications will broaden even further. We already know push-button or preset missions will change the way we examine bridges, roofs, cell towers, buildings, and real estate. Drones will make inspections, monitoring, and modeling easier, safer, and cheaper. You’ll get better data, too, and more of it.

Industries potentially impacted by BLOS applications

  • Construction
  • Infrastructure inspections, e.g., pipelines, powerlines, roadways, and rail
  • Windfarm inspections
  • Agriculture
  • Mapping/GIS
  • Search & rescue
  • Firefighting
  • Forestry, conservation, and wildlife management

Within Sight

We expect the FAA will introduce BLOS regulations within the next 18 months. At that time, construction, insurance, and inspection will become premium markets, with many close behind and others yet to emerge. Hangar is ready to go to work today, with fully autonomous flight technology, enduring industry-leading partnerships and an array of application-specific interfaces, workflows, and dispatch options. We’ve also built a national network of vetted, trained, and licensed operators, and we’ll be ready when the FAA gives the launch signal with pushbutton presets for recurring inspections and drone-to-cloud data pipeline via LTE. Our clients will be able do more work, and do it better. After all, more autonomy for the drone means more autonomy for the drone user — time, energy, and resources you can apply to your business.

Thanks for reading!

— This post was written with Roger Sollenberger.

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