In the last two years, the construction, insurance, and real estate industries have all embraced drones, and retail giants like Amazon, Google, and Rakuten are busy building their drone delivery systems. In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, we saw drones play a vital role in rescue and recovery efforts, and in Rwanda, unmanned aircraft have been delivering lifesaving medical supplies for over a year.
Many of these innovations are made possible by collaborations between government and industry that are opening airspace across the globe. Yet despite our progress, many complex drone operations are still off-limits in most of the world’s airspace: flying at night, over people, and beyond visual line of sight, for example. Missions that might make significant contributions to the drone economy can’t yet take off.
Unlike most industries, the drone ecosystem requires more regulation to thrive — regulation that would unlock the airspace for missions of greater complexity and more autonomy. Drone hardware, software, and services have matured rapidly, outpacing the rules that guide their use. The gap between what drones can do and what they are allowed to do is a Rubicon that must be crossed if we want to reap the benefits of the drone economy.
In 2018, the drone industry will take technical capabilities to new heights, but that won’t be the chief driver behind the development of the drone economy. Instead, our progress will be decided by three forces: global collaboration and competition that opens the airspace; public-private partnerships that encourage innovation; and an investment landscape that brings the world’s largest enterprises into the drone economy.
Global Collaboration — and Competition
In the first days of the drone ecosystem, the United States emerged as a leader in efforts to open the skies for drones. The field is much wider in 2018, creating more opportunities for collaboration and competition to drive the drone ecosystem forward.
In Switzerland, for example, there has been major momentum behind the U-space initiative, Europe’s vision for integrating unmanned aircraft into the region’s airspace. Led by Skyguide and FOCA, the Swiss regulator, the country has demonstrated sophisticated unmanned traffic management technology, and has begun allowing some flights beyond line of sight, even in dense urban environments. New Zealand, Japan, Singapore, Germany, and the UK are also countries to watch, as they build their own low-altitude airspace infrastructures and open more of their skyways to drones.
These programs and policy advancements could make a big difference to the drone ecosystem. Eager to benefit from drone-powered commerce, these and other nations will compete for the attention and investment of drone service providers and drone companies.
Public-Private Partnerships Prove their Worth
Across the globe, government and industry are working together to safely integrate drones into the airspace. The FAA’s Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) program launched its prototype in the fall of last year, empowering third-party providers to facilitate digital authorization for flights in controlled airspace that previously took up to 90 days to approve. The FAA is on track to extend LAANC nationwide by the end of 2018, bringing digital authorization to more than 500 airports in the U.S. Also, this year, the United States’ new UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP) will come to life, giving selected states and cities the opportunity to open their skies for complex drone operations not permissible today.
Similar partnerships between industry and government are taking root all over the world. For example the European Union’s Single European Sky initiative, known as SESAR, has announced its own version of the IPP, which will launch at least five unmanned traffic management projects in 2018. As these initiatives begin to show results, we’ll get our first look at how a fully functioning drone economy could contribute to our daily lives, and learn how these models can efficiently and safely enable millions of drone flights.
Investment in the drone industry continued to soar last year, but the focus was on drone services and hardware, particularly for drones that can take on commercial missions. This trend will intensify in 2018, as programs founded in 2017 and early 2018 make progress and commercial drones have more access to more airspace.
Seed funding and other early investments will dwindle, but mergers and acquisitions will heat. We can expect new product commitments and investments from enterprises in consumer electronics, retail, and other industries where the drone revolution is playing out. These investments will bring large enterprises and established brands into the drone market in earnest, leading to advancements in technology and more pressure on regulators to make way for the drone economy.
As long as government and industry work together and learn from each other, these partnerships will provide the momentum the drone ecosystem needs to thrive.
Ben Marcus is the CEO of AirMap, an airspace management platform.