Drones in the USA: The Battle for the Civilian Market
NEW YORK ( MainStreet Speak to civil libertarians and the Wikileaks crowd, and the nightmare scenario you get about drones is how we are in impending danger of being transformed into a police state, with Big Brother watching over us with these flying robots.
Speak to members of the drone industry, however, and you get a totally different nightmare scenariothat the U.S. is falling behind on the huge business opportunity in the civilian applications of drones and losing out on thousands of jobs and revenues as a consequence.
While military drones occupy much of the public consciousness and media attention, what has gone by largely unnoticed is the major change about to happen in the skies above people in the U.S. This stems from a decision by the federal government in 2012 to ask the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to integrate Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System (NAS). Devoid of the three-letter acronym soup, it simply means getting civilian drones to fly around U.S. skies along with an American Airlines, United or Southwest.
In response, the FAA has set out a roadmap for integration by 2015 and has taken stepscritics say baby stepstoward granting certification for limited flying in civilian airspace as it tries to sort out the safety issues and implications of drones flying alongside their manned counterparts. Commercial drone manufacturers can currently only get certifications for experimental purposes. Even if they were to sell their products to operators, the latter are not authorized to fly them on a commercial basis.
Nelson Paez, CEO of DreamHammer, a Santa Monica-based startup specializing in UAS software, emphasized the urgency of moving fast.
"It's really critical that Americans,who invented this technology, use it first," he said. "The problem as usual is that the government needs to move fast for innovation to occur."
The tone of stridency is justifiablethere are around 2,400 Yamaha RMAX helicopters flying around in Japan, being almost exclusively used in agriculture. The Japanese are not newcomers to this gameYamaha developed its first unmanned helicopter, the R-50 way back in 1987. Just ask Detroit what happens when you ignore Japanese competition.
The competition for civilian uses of drones is in fact worldwide. In China, parcel service SF Express is using drones to deliver cakes in Shanghai and local authorities seem to have a much more relaxed view of regulations than the FAA. In India, a university-incubated startup called Ideaforge developed a UAS called Netra, which was used successfully for disaster management in recent floods that swept a state in the Himalayan foothills. German drone maker microdronesGmBH has offices worldwide including in countries like Australia, Saudi Arabia, and Taiwanand civilian applications are top of the list.