For the Future of Autonomous Vehicles: Look Up…
Low-altitude airspace and aerial logistics can be built from the ground up with technology that is already ahead of the curve.
There is zero-margin for error in integrating drones into the airspace and the current FAA regulations fittingly demands a more mature market. On the same beat, it doesn’t take much more than a look at current street congestion, last-mile efforts, and the ability to save puppies to conclude that drones are here to stay. Currently, the $1.8B U.S. market is dominated by the capital-intensive hardware manufacturing of the drones themselves. But the supporting ecosystem and applied services of low-altitude aerial tech are exemplified by startups such as:
Airmap — Airspace management platform integrating low-altitude drone operations with existing airspace authorities.
Iris Automation — Collision avoidance for commercial drones utilizing computer vision and deep learning technology to safely guide drones beyond visual line of sight.
Zipline — A fully active aerial logistics company using drones to deliver life-saving medical supplies to rural areas in Rwanda & Tanzania (regulatory arbitrage?) through hub and spoke distribution.
JD.com — Though far from a startup, Alibaba competitor JD.com is already using drones to deliver packages to rural areas in China.
We’ve Been Ready…
While these startups all provide evidence of what is possible with aerial drones, looking at a few other key trends show that the technology and market is already far better positioned than autonomous cars:
Autopilot — Dating all the way back to 1912, autopilot on manned aircraft has evolved over the last 100+ years to automate all aspects of aircraft control with the exception of taxi and takeoff.
Consumer Drone Capabilities — Consumer drones such as the ones found in DJI’s fleets can already automate an entire GPS-guided path with sensors to prevent collisions with buildings or trees using the bulk of technology found in a common smartphone and costing no more than $1K.
Clear Skies — With the exception of airspace deconfliction and inclement weather, autonomous flight has arguably far fewer variables than autonomous driving which may be why autopilot has already been in development over the last 100 years. Icy roads, deer run-outs, unruly drivers/pedestrians, debris, poorly marked signs, construction…the list goes on for variables that autonomous cars need to account for that just aren’t there when you look up.
Currently, the two largest FAA regulations that companies are chomping at the bit to get past are beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) restrictions and prohibited flight over uninvolved persons (i.e. all urban areas).
But beyond mere regulatory enforcement, the FAA has already been proactive in facilitating drone operations in class B/C/D airspace. Previously, drone pilots had to request authorization up to 90 days in advance; understandably cumbersome. With the FAA roll-out of the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC), pilots can now obtain authorization in near real-time to conduct operations.
While the ecosystem is still far from achieving full maturity, with the blank slate of an open sky and the incredibly evolved technology already powering drones today, there is always 400 feet of opportunity above us.
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