Why Drones are the Ultimate Disruptive Technology

When is market disruption a good thing? When it creates opportunities beyond traditional markets, provides non-traditional solutions and simplifies our everyday processes.

In this way, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) — “drones” to most of us — may be the ultimate in disruptive technology. They can deliver vital medical supplies to remote locations and disaster areas, improve the crop maintenance process and increase food production, and inspect infrastructure that’s hundreds of feet off the ground — whether that’s a downtown skyscraper or a wind turbine on the Plains — all while our workers remain safely on the ground.

The consumer market in this country is now quick to adopt this technology. The Consumer Technology Association’s (CTA)TM semi-annual U.S. Consumer Technology Sales and Forecasts report expects sales of drones weighing more than 250 grams — the minimum for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandated registration — to reach one million units in 2016, a 145 percent increase from last year’s total. And if you include drones weighing 250 grams or less, the total forecast for 2016 U.S. drone sales tops 2.8 million units — a nearly 150 percent leap from 2015.

According to Shawn DuBravac, Ph.D., chief economist and senior director of research at CTA, drones are a timely example of disruptive technology upending the status quo. “Right now, new tech categories can come out of seemingly nowhere and lead to disruption in the blink of an eye,” DuBravac says.

We saw strong evidence of drones’ disruptive potential at CES 2016 in Las Vegas in January. The Unmanned Systems Marketplace featured 27 exhibitors — including Airbus, DJI and EHang, Inc., as well as the FAA — and nearly tripled in size since CES 2015. Additionally, CTA offered a series of drone-related conference sessions during the Innovation Policy Summit at CES, featuring key policy sector players including the FAA’s Marke “Hoot” Gibson, Nancy Egan from 3D Robotics and Brendan Schulman from DJI.

The biggest impact for drone technology, however, lies in the commercial sector. According to CTA economic research from 2015, under the right domestic regulatory environment, the U.S. will reach one million UAS flights a day within the next 20 years. But, CTA research also points to the fact that while the U.S. drone market is indeed growing, the country risks falling behind in the global market because of fewer or more progressive regulations in other countries.

While we wait, many states are taking drone regulation into their own hands, creating a confusing and duplicative patchwork of state and municipal laws. We need a coordinated and consistent national approach to drone regulation.

The critical element of drones’ future as a disruptive technology is the continued development of sense-and-avoid technology — an innovation that will help usher in an era of autonomous drone flights. The equation here is simple: as more UAS functions become autonomous, the technology will provide exponentially more benefits and efficiencies. Under FAA rules that foster beyond-line-of-sight operations — a technical term for allowing drones to fly outside of a pilot’s limited vision — the domestic UAS industry could become a $1 billion market.

“The ability for beyond-line-of-sight operation is the true game changer, opening the door to autonomous UAS operation and unleashing a remarkable economic potential,” said Brian Markwalter, senior vice president of research and standards at CTA. “Right now, more than six billion packages are delivered every year in the U.S., weighing less than three pounds apiece on average — perfect candidates for drone delivery. The autonomous operation of UAS for the delivery of everyday items would not only lower the cost for consumers and improve delivery times, but also be a significant driver of our tech economy.”

Last year, the UAS industry took a critical step toward realizing that vision in ‘the real world.’ The drone company Flirtey, based in Nevada, teamed with the FAA and NASA to demonstrate actual drone-delivery technology — delivering medical supplies to a free clinic in a remote mountainous region of Virginia.

In Forbes’ coverage of the event, Flirtey CEO Matt Sweeny called the demonstration, “A Kitty Hawk moment, not just for Flirtey but for the entire industry. Proving that unmanned aircraft can deliver life-saving medicines is an important step toward a future where unmanned aircraft make routine autonomous deliveries of your everyday purchases.” Since then, Flirtey has partnered with leading package delivery, online retail and food companies to make instant drone delivery a reality for consumers around the globe.

Additionally, AirMap is working toward incorporating drones into our everyday lives. The UAS services company — based in the “Silicon Beach” section of Southern California — provides accurate, reliable and trustworthy low-altitude navigational data and communication tools to the drone industry. The result — a rapidly expanding global network of partners and app users that are critical to AirMap’s effort to build a drone airspace management system.

As close as the future of autonomous delivery may seem, to fully unleash the game-changing potential drones offer the UAS industry needs U.S. policymakers to establish a clear set of guidelines — rules that provide for safe and efficient drone operation, but do not threaten to inhibit innovation. As a member of the FAA UAS Registration Task Force and Micro UAS Aviation Rulemaking Committee, CTA urges local officials to defer to the FAA’s jurisdiction on drone-related matters concerning the national airspace. And while the FAA is advancing toward the release of its federal UAS flight guidelines, Congress also has a significant role to play — especially in three specific areas.

First, in the short term, the current regulatory structure offers would-be drone users an exemption-only process — all commercial uses of UAS must get FAA waivers, which is a slow process. Also, while the FAA’s proposed rule for small UAS doesn’t distinguish between drones weighing from zero to 55 pounds, a proposed micro rule now in Congress provides a more proportionate level of regulation by creating a new category of “micro UAS.” This measure would authorize the use of micro UAS — drones weighing 4.4 pounds or less, operated within line of sight during the day, fewer than 400 feet above the ground and more than five miles from airports — so waivers to fly are not mandatory.

Roughly 400,000 UAS sold in the U.S. during the 2015 holiday season. For our country to continue to lead the world in innovation and safety, we need a risk-based regulatory landscape for these smaller drones.

Second, over the medium term, we need clear guidance on the safe and practical flight of drones over people — a necessity if we’re to enjoy the life-changing benefits of widespread drone delivery. UAS manufacturers and app developers now have mapping technologies that provide drone operators with critical flight information — access to live-but-temporary flight restrictions due to forest fires, major stadium events, and other changing circumstances at the time of flight. This approach makes far more sense than prohibiting drone operations within a certain predefined area by using geofencing technology — either preprogrammed onboard software with a registry of prohibited areas, or infrastructure that signals or shutdown a UAS near a designated area.

Because technology develops at lighting speed, what may seem like an acceptable solution is rarely the case years or even months later. Mandating a specific technology — such as geofencing — that may be outdated quickly could prevent the industry from innovating better solutions. Additionally, forced geofencing could prevent drone use in areas where it could be especially helpful. Instead, policymakers should provide innovators the flexibility they need to develop solutions and educational tools for UAS operators to promote safe flight.

Finally — and this will take some time over the long term — we need a smart, efficient “virtual infrastructure” if we are to reach one million drone flights a day in our country. Similar to the implementation of our national highway system and all the exponential benefits it delivered — often literally — for interstate travel delivery, a network of communication and guidance systems for our low-altitude airspace will be the foundation for us to revolutionize the way we all do business.

To achieve this, any federal rules about drone operation — autonomous or not — must be paired with the continued cooperation between the tech industry and government. In order to actually see all the economic growth, job creation and production efficiencies drone innovations promise us, policymakers must commit to providing the drones sector the infrastructure it needs and fully embracing a strong partnership with industry.

“We envision a dynamic tech market with tremendous growth potential,” says Michael Petricone, senior vice president, government and regulatory affairs at CTA, “but only once we have the FAA’s final rules that allow the safe commercial operation of drones. The United States has a remarkable history as a leader in technology. In fact, we’ve led the entire world in virtually flight innovation there is. But when it comes to allowing drones to fulfill their promise, we’re trailing other countries.”

The promise of UAS is immense. You can help spur this disruptive innovation and tell lawmakers how critical smart drones policy is to our everyday lives — now and in the decades to come — by texting DRONES to 52886 and joining The Innovation Movement. We have plenty more policy work ahead before we can enjoy all the amazing benefits drones will bring to life.

Consumer Technology Association (CTA) is the trade association representing the $287 billion U.S. consumer technology industry. CTA served on the Federal Aviation Administration’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Registration Task Force and is on the administration’s Micro UAS Aviation Rulemaking Committee. CTA also owns and produces CES® — the world’s gathering place for all who thrive on the business of consumer technology.

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