The battle over new rules for unmanned aircraft in the U.S. is pitting the drone industry’s two starkly different cultures against each other: high-tech entrepreneurs versus big aerospace and defense companies.
Boeing Co., Northrop Grumman Corp. and other marquee aerospace names are the industry’s incumbents, with thousands of drones sold to the U.S. and other militaries. Many of their drones are high-powered and high-priced, some with wingspans wider than a Boeing 737 and reported price tags of as much as $93 million.
Meanwhile, upstarts like PrecisionHawk Inc. and SZ DJI Technology Co. are pitching lightweight, low-cost devices that entrepreneurs are using to film movies, inspect homes and monitor crops. Many of their drones are hand-held and some can be bought at Wal- Mart for a few hundred dollars. These drones are poised to capture the commercial market as new rules open it up, analysts say.
The two groups tend to have different sensibilities and different target customers, even meeting at different conferences. They’ve coexisted amicably, with the big firms serving the military and the smaller players serving hobbyists. But now their relationship has soured over efforts to influence long-delayed drone regulations and their increasing convergence in the market as demand for drones takes off.
Lacking clear rules for unmanned aircraft, the Federal Aviation Administration has prohibited their commercial use without its approval. Many filmmakers, farmers and others have been using smaller drones without government consent, but the FAA has approved just two commercial drones, both for use in Alaska. The FAA plans to propose rules for small drones later this year that could help decide whether the drone incumbents or upstarts thrive.
Many small drone makers and entrepreneurs accuse the larger companies of pushing for restrictive regulations that will create barriers in the market and protect the incumbents’ position atop it. “No one says it out loud, but we all know that’s the situation,” said Sven Juerss, chief executive of German drone maker Microdrones GmbH. The incumbents “invested millions in the bigger birds, and they want to sell them as long as possible.”
The bigger drone makers reject that claim. They have lobbied extensively on Capitol Hill, but they say they are leaning on the FAA to open up the skies to drones from all manufacturers—as long as they’re safe. “It’s one of those urban myths that I’ve seen zero evidence of being true,” said John Langford, CEO of Aurora Flight Sciences Corp., which helps develop and build some of the largest drones. “There’s nobody who has a more genuine interest in the safe evolution of [drone] rules than the big players, because, remember, they have the most to lose if it’s not done right.”
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com