You’ve seen the prototype videos of drones delivering packages or humanitarian supplies, buzzing around sports fields and bicyclists, and maybe even participating in search-and-rescue missions. You can buy a drone for the price of a nice video camera, but when you buy one online, it still arrives by regular postal van. So what’s keeping drones out of the skies—or at least outside of the sunny shots of viral concept videos?
If you ask industry groups like the Small UAV Coalition, the main barrier is government regulation.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Congress-mandated deadline of 2015 for making rules for drone use in the U.S. National Airspace (NAS) is here, and we’ve yet to see what these rules entail. In the meantime, only groups that have obtained one of two special certificates or who qualify as hobbyists (limited by aircraft weight, location, range of flight, altitude, and non-commercial status) may fly. In other words, companies looking to experiment with drone delivery are currently grounded on their charging docks.
Of course, whatever the rules are, it is likely that commercial interests will still be unhappy. Amazon has been especially vociferous in threatening to take its drone business to other countries if the U.S. regulations remain unfavorable. Likewise, tech entrepreneur Marc Andreessen called for dropping “all legal barriers to flying unmanned aerial vehicles,” at least within certain areas, to give a boost to that sort of temperamental investment that prefers to remain outside of governmental safety and commercial rules.
But is it true that the government is standing in the way of a technological hyperbola? Is the tech ready to go on the launch pad, just waiting for some government bureaucrat to hit the big red button?
Unfortunately, while the technology is ready to leap into the sky, it is also ready to come plummeting down from it. The hurdles are technical, not governmental. Drone technology can do amazing things, but while inspiring us with potential, the current generation of drones has also shown us just how far away they are from being capable of our science-fiction dreams.
Drones are evolving like any new technology, and with every new evolving speciation, there are branches of the species that will not live to reproduce. What makes this particular tech species so vital to watch is that the drones that don’t make the cut aren’t just cast off smartwatches and unappealing tablets that languish in our drawers and overstock warehouses.
Drones are aircraft. They are meant to fly through the national airspace with airliners and cargo jets, over the buildings, streets, power lines, and human heads below. In a 2012 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the impartial government agency that does feasibility studies for the federal government, identified a number of problems that have yet to be resolved for drones to join the NAS without significant issues. The NAS is a crowded place, filled with air traffic moving rapidly in six dimensional vectors. That the United States’ air traffic has the best safety record in the world is due to the FAA’s diligence in safety rules, procedures, and inspections since it was created in 1967, after a number of previous evolving agencies and legislation were shown to be insufficient in maintaining safe skies as aviation technology advanced. Tossing unpiloted aircraft into the mix is not something that should be done lightly, especially as that technology evolves rapidly in its early days of wider adoption outside of the highly regulated space of military aviation.
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