Embrace the Drone

You can’t stop progress, so best get on board.

There is a mixed brew of opinions on the spread of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS, or “drone”) technology. While many see their benefits, some, be they conservative, libertarian or liberal in their politics, are vocally opposed to their use, mostly based on privacy concerns. Stories of citizens shooting them out of the sky may be exaggerated, but efforts exist in multiple jurisdictions across the country to ban or limit their use. Virginia, happily, seems to be embracing the capability. The moratorium on their use expired in 2015, and the legislature recently funded efforts at Virginia Tech to support continued technological development. Legislation (HB 451) passed in March to keep localities from banning them, and the Governor even signed an Executive Order establishing a commission to take on the issue. These are all wise moves, and good for Virginia business, given that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently approved the rule for use of the smallest variants (under 55lbs.) of these systems in the National Air Space (NAS). A combination of accelerated regulatory progress to enable wider use, continued investment in new systems, and reform and modernization of export rules can preserve the United States’ leadership in this emerging and dynamic market. This leadership will lead to significant, high-tech, manufacturing activity (and jobs) and provide both revenue and benefit to communities across the country. Failure to follow through on these initiatives, or a misguided attempt to hamper the industry, could, however, damage US competitiveness and strengthen the already robust international competition’s efforts to eclipse the US and capture market share.

The US has enjoyed a technical and operational lead in the use of UAS for decades, with only Israel presenting a challenge technically or in terms of market reach. Recent improvements in processing, communications and sensor technologies have resulted in the proliferation of this capability to smaller providers around the world as the market for unmanned systems begins what is anticipated to be a large expansion. The FAA rule (August 29, 2016 – https://www.faa.gov/uas/) for integration of Group 1 (under 55lbs) UAS into the NAS is welcomed, but more work is needed to enable the wider use of these small systems and to enable the use of larger, more capable, and more useful systems. Concerned citizens of all political stripes should embrace this progress as good for the economy and the community.

The impact on the US economy is significant. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems, International (AUVSI – the UAS industry association – www.auvsi.org) estimates that the economic impact of the “integration of UAS into the NAS will total more than $13.6 billion in the first three years of integration and will grow sustainably for the foreseeable future, culminating to more than $82.1 billion between 2015 and 2025,” and that “integration into the NAS will create more than 34,000 manufacturing jobs … and more than 70,000 new jobs in the first three years” and that by “2025, total job creation is estimated at 103,776.” This growth is not guaranteed, however, as international competition is growing. AUVSI asserts that for every “year that integration is delayed, the United States loses more than $10 billion in potential economic impact.”

UAS, or “drones,” are an oft misunderstood technology, leading to much of the furor over their use. A drone is any aircraft that flies without the benefit of a pilot on board, controlled instead (still by a human) on the ground. They range from systems that can fit in the palm of your hand to larger systems that rival manned aircraft in size, cost and capability. They have been around for decades, and in fact some of the earliest aircraft were unmanned. Advancements in computing and communications technologies and the continued miniaturization of sensor capabilities have made them more capable and reliable than in the past, and manufacturers are turning out the smallest of them in great numbers. Scary pictures of the “Predator” and “Reaper” UAS, made by General Atomics, lead many to conclude that drones are for killing, and the successful military use of the Predator and Reaper to do just that has not helped with this reputation. The fact is, however, that the vast majority of drones is not armed and will never be. Another misconception is that drones are all like the little quadrotor aircraft flown by hobbyists from his iPhone, but this is just a small subset of the market, albeit the one getting the most attention currently. We should all open our minds to the very real potential that UAS will soon be able to do most anything that a piloted craft can do. UAS can surveil, carry cargo, deliver packages, conduct inspections on bridges and roads, assist in agriculture, mining, forestry, search and rescue, firefighting and a whole host of other missions yet to be discovered, all of it at reduced cost (theoretically) and lowered risk to humans (absolutely). Drones can also do things that manned aircraft cannot, or should not, do. A drone can, for example, fly directly over the top of a burning building, at close range and even at night, using its infrared camera to pick out hotspots on the roof or identify casualties, warning firefighters of the danger. A drone can fly for hours, soon even days, without crew rest, enabled by its lighter weight and fuel efficiency, to extend mission times well beyond that achievable by piloted aircraft. Drones can be launched and recovered in remote areas, without the need of airfields, to penetrate the hardest to reach terrain where an aircraft might be needed, or to provide capability to users who have no airfield access. As the lingo goes in the industry, drones can do the “dirty, dull and dangerous” missions that pilots do not want to do, cannot do, or should not be doing.

Variations in design are legion in this emerging industry, and the market opportunity is significant. While the 5-10lbs. quadcopter dominates the news, it is worth noting that the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk has a wingspan of 131 feet, weighs nearly 15,000lbs., and can fly at speeds of 390+ miles per hour. The Lockheed Martin K-MAX is a modified helicopter from Kaman that can lift and deliver 6,000 lbs. of cargo at sea level and more than 4,000 lbs. at a 15,000 ft. altitude. Multiple companies are testing radical new designs, and companies like Google and Amazon are embracing the future. The technology to do all of this, and more, is the most advanced in the US and it would be a shame if we did not leverage this advantage to dominate the world market.

The concerns voiced by drone critics usually surround privacy and civil liberties. I had the opportunity some years ago to debate this issue at a conference sponsored by the American Bar Association. I was the “technical guy” on the panel and was not there to discuss privacy, but I just couldn’t help myself and ended up debating the law professor who was there specifically to talk about this concern. If I may say so myself, I think I won the day (at least with the audience) when I asked her my basic question, which is: “what difference does is make if a video or photo is taken from an aircraft by a pilot or crew in the sky or a pilot and crew on the ground?” To be fair, her answer was that the difference was one of ubiquity. Drones, especially the smallest type, have the potential of proliferating widely, risking the privacy of many more people than similar technology on manned craft and doing so in a much more surreptitious manner. But instead of trying to stop the progress of this amazing technology, the answer to that concern is simple: If it is illegal to do it from a manned aircraft, it is illegal to do it from an unmanned aircraft. There is no logical reason to call out unmanned aircraft for special regulation when what we actually may need are clear rules regarding surveillance and privacy, regardless of the platform used.

Conservatives should appreciate the benefits of the technology, the lowering of costs and the potential for significant business growth. Libertarians should appreciate that drones, with their lower entry costs and freedom from airfields, can, in the words of Google’s Dave Vos, “democratize the airspace” and “make the airspace something that every human on the planet gets to use.” Liberals should appreciate all the societal benefits that can accrue from the proper application of this new capability. Instead of trying to thwart drone use, we should all try to support the industry and lead the world in this capability.

The US has the potential to dominate the UAS manufacturing market due to our superior technology and long tradition of UAS employment, especially in the area of large systems. To fully realize this potential, however, increased investment emphasis, accelerated FAA regulatory activity (e.g. the expansion of rules to cover larger and more capable systems), and a review of export restrictions are required. If cooler heads prevail, legislators and regulators can address issues of concern, such as privacy laws and technology proliferation, while governments at all levels help prepare the way for a robust future manufacturing market supporting the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs. Instead of fearing the unknown or fighting inevitable progress, we should ensure that US technology remains foremost in the world. This is a technical revolution. We should embrace it as good business and true progress.

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