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Our series on drones, known formally as “unmanned aircraft systems” or “UAS,” addresses the growing use of drones in numerous industries across the United States. Many sectors in the United States have embraced drones due to their ability to significantly reduce costs, execute a variety of tasks traditionally performed by human labor, access places that humans and larger aircraft are incapable of reaching and provide enhanced reliability and accuracy of data.

Furthermore, commercial drone use in the U.S. is expected to become more prevalent as federal government decision-makers and industry stakeholders work together to encourage drone use in commercial operations and to foster the integration of drones into the nation’s airspace.

Here’s the sixth and final installment of our series, which explores the significance of the development of remote identification (Remote ID) requirements for drones; addresses the need for the industry to prioritize educating government decision-makers, industry stakeholders and the general public of the benefits drones are uniquely capable of providing; and provides an outlook for the commercial drone industry in 2020.

Remote ID will increase scalability of commercial drone operations

2019 ended with one of the most significant developments seen thus far by the commercial drone industry, the long-awaited release of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) regarding Remoted Identification (Remote ID).

Prior to the publication of the NPRM on December 31, 2019, the impediments placed on drone use by 14 CFR Part 107 and other various laws have led many in the industry to lament the restrictive regulatory environment to which drone operators are subjected.

For example, without obtaining a Part 107 Waiver from the FAA, a drone operator may not:

  1. Fly beyond the visual line of sight of the Pilot (BVLOS)
  2. Operate more than one drone at a time (one-to-many)
  3. Fly over people
  4. Operate at night

The process of obtaining a Part 107 Waiver from the FAA can be expensive, time-consuming and impractical for certain operations.

Therefore, the NPRM is widely considered by drone service providers and end users alike to be a necessary step in order for commercial drone operations to become scalable at a maximum level.

Remote ID can essentially be thought of as digital license plates for drones. The NPRM sets forth three categories of compliance with the remote ID rules.

The first category, standard remote identification, would require a drone to broadcast identification and location data directly from the drone while simultaneously transmitting this data to a remote ID service supplier via an internet connection.

The second category, limited remote ID, would require only transmission of the data to a remote ID service supplier via an internet connection; however, in order to operate under this category of remote ID, a drone must not operate more than 400 feet from the control station.

Finally, drone operators flying within their visual line of sight and within an FAA-Recognized Identification Area (FRIA), a flying site established within the programming of a community-based organization recognized by the FAA, would be exempted from the remote ID rules.

Those stakeholders interested in submitting responsive comments to the FAA have until March 2 to do so. Several drone service providers and end users have already expressed issues with the NPRM as it is currently written.

For example, the NPRM sets forth a three-year implementation period and makes no exemption for public safety officials and first responders, who in a crisis situation will not be able to focus their efforts on compliance with the remote ID rules.

In addition, remote ID is meant to identify the individual who registered the drone and the location of the drone in operation, but these factors will not necessarily reveal information about the individual who is actually operating the drone.

Furthermore, the NPRM places enforcement responsibility on local public safety officials and law enforcement agencies. These groups may not have the capacity to handle drone complaints.

Nevertheless, the significance of the eventual implementation of the remote ID requirements cannot be overstated. The ability of enforcement agencies to identify the specific drones in the airspace at any given moment will facilitate the ability of drone operators to perform advanced operations without having to obtain a waiver.

Once end-user industries are able to take maximum advantage of drone capabilities by flying beyond the line of sight of the pilot and performing other advanced operations without needing a waiver, commercial drone utilization will achieve far greater scalability.

The industry must prioritize increasing awareness among government, industries and the general public

While the regulatory hurdles imposed on commercial drone operations are poised to be at least somewhat alleviated through the implementation of remote ID technology, an equally formidable obstacle impairing scalability is the negative perception, and a lack of understanding, of commercial drone operations among government agencies, industry stakeholders and the general public.

The following results of a survey conducted by the Hawthorn Group, a Virginia-based public affairs firm, reflect the negative perceptions the industry must combat in order for drone utilization to achieve maximum scalability:

  • 68% of Americans are concerned about the safety of drones, while only 7% have no concerns at all
  • 70% expect home delivery of consumer goods via drone within the next five or 10 years; however, nearly 50% think that drone deliveries would be too dangerous to communities
  • 82% think commercial drones used for deliveries will cause a serious accident sooner or later

It is not difficult to understand why Americans tend to view drones in a negative light, at least at this juncture.

Over the past couple of years, national news has been saturated with stories of drones causing more harm than good and contributing to violence instead of safety. In December 2018, American media outlets were quick to report that Gatwick airport experienced substantial disruptions due to alleged drone sightings. Just one year later, the news was inundated with reports of mysterious swarms of drones flying over rural areas of Colorado and Nebraska, despite the fact that investigations by public safety officials have not resulted in any findings of criminal activity.

Drones have also recently been reported as being at the forefront of U.S. military attacks, and drones even serve as a primary source of antagonism and villainy in the latest Spiderman movie.

Yet, despite these negative and often exaggerated accounts of drone operations, drones are capable of performing far more good than the average American realizes.

Take, for example, the use of drones by law enforcement agencies and first responders to assist in more efficient search and rescue operations and firefighting efforts. Or the fact that drones are being utilized by tower inspectors and general contractors to improve workflows, reduce risks and cut costs.

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of how drones can be used for good is the successful drone delivery of a kidney to a transplant recipient, which was facilitated by AiRXOS and the University of Maryland School of Medicine in April 2019.

Despite all of the remarkable use cases for how drones can be utilized to improve the lives of everyday Americans, the news media continues to report far more frequently on negative aspects of drone use.

Outlook for 2020

The commercial drone sector continues to expand as end-user industries embrace drones at an exponential rate due to their cost-efficiency, risk-reducing attributes and versatility of uses.

The regulatory obstacles that have plagued commercial drone operations will eventually be alleviated as remote identification technology facilitates widespread advanced operations.

Throughout this series of articles, we have reiterated the importance of state and local government decision-makers working with federal government leaders and industry stakeholders to facilitate commercial drone operations and remove barriers that threaten to curtail the progression of the industry.

While drone service providers and end users are positioned to operate in a more regulatory-friendly environment in the coming years, they must prioritize educating government agencies, industry stakeholders and the general public of the numerous benefits drones can provide to various industries.

Once advanced operations have been enabled on a wide scale, and government officials, industry leaders and the public have come to accept drones as mechanisms for good, commercial drone use will finally achieve maximum scalability.