Powervision PowerEggDavid, Max, and guest Tim Trott (“The Drone Professor”) try their hand at broadcasting a live episode. We discuss the Micro UAS amendment to the FAA reauthorization bill, another lawsuit challenging the FAA right to require drone registration, and the results of two UAV criminal cases.

News

A Giant Step for Micro Drones

On February 11, 2016, Illinois Congressman Rodney Davis introduced a micro UAS operations amendment [PDF] to H.R. 4441, the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act of 2016. The amendment would add a new “Micro UAS operations” section to Chapter 455 of title 49, United States Code, and permit commercial operations under simplified and streamlined requirements and restrictions.

A micro UAS is defined as weighing 4.4 pounds (2 kg) or less. For commercial operation, there would be no airman certification requirements, no aeronautical knowledge test, no age or experience requirements, and no airworthiness certification requirements. Registration would still be required.

The requirements for the proposed Micro UAS category are:

  1. fly below 400 feet above ground level;
  2. fly no faster than 40 knots;
  3. fly within visual line of sight;
  4. fly only during daylight hours; and
  5. stay at least 5 statute miles from the geographic center of a tower-controlled airport… unless the pilot provides prior notice to the airport operator and the pilot receives, for a tower-controlled airport, prior approval from the air traffic control facility located at the airport.

The House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee voted to accept the micro UAS amendment and approved the entire AIRR Act, as amended.

Think Tank Sues FAA In Federal Court Over Drone Registration Rule

DC think tank TechFreedom has filed a lawsuit in the District of Columbia Court of Appeals seeking to overturn the FAA’s drone registration requirement. TechFreedom says the FAA’s action violates Section 336 of a 2012 FAA authorization law prohibiting the FAA from promulgating ”any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft.” The lawsuit claims the FAA’s failure to provide the public with notice of the new regulation and an opportunity for comment was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion.”

NJ Drone Shooter Pleads Guilty

In September 2014, Russell Percenti shot down a drone flying near his property. The drone’s owner said that he was taking aerial pictures of a friend’s home, retrieved his damaged drone, and called the police. Percenti, who admitted shooting the drone, was charged with criminal mischief and possession of a weapon for unlawful purposes.

Judge: Park ranger’s use of taser on drone operator was justified

A man flying his drone in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was asked to land by park rangers. He initially refused to land and refused to provide identification. The park ranger used a Taser to disable the man as he started running away. The judge fined the man $1,000 and banned him from the park for one year.

Video of the Week

PowerEgg – The Flying Robot by PowerVision

The arms and rotors of the PowerVision PowerEgg unfold to reveal a UAV with a 360-degree panoramic 4K HD camera on a 3-axis gimbal, real-time video transmission, and an optical flow indoor positioning system.

 


“Drone lawyer” Jonathan Rupprecht talks about current legal cases that will have major implications for model airplane enthusiasts and sUAS operators.

Guest

Jonathan Rupprecht, Esq.Jonathan Rupprecht is a commercial pilot with single and multi-engine aircraft ratings and also a flight instructor. He has a Bachelor of Science in Professional Aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and his law degree from Florida International University School of Law. Rupprecht Law provides legal services for operators of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Jonathan authored the book Drones: Their Many Civilian Uses and the U.S. Laws Surrounding Them, Drone Operator’s Logbook, and he co-authored Unmanned Aircraft in the National Airspace: Critical Issues. Technology, and the Law.

Our discussion with Jonathan includes:

  • The FAA’s interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Can the FAA regulate model aircraft?
  • The boundaries of navigable airspace: Down to the ground or something higher? This impacts the notion of trespass by drone, privacy, and federal versus local jurisdiction to regulate.
  • The Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) around Washington D.C. and its impact on those who fly model aircraft and UAS.

News

Area 51 Bans Drones… Your Drones, At Least

Area 51 is now posted as a no drone zone.

Video of the Week

Safely Travel Deep Inside a Glacier Through the Eyes of a Drone

Flyability partnered with the team from Zermatt Mountain Rescue in the Swiss Alps to explore glacial crevasses.


We just launched a new research survey exploring your drone-buying experiences, where you bought, what seller services matter, and where you intend to buy drones and/or small unmanned aerial systems. As a short 13-question survey, it’s designed for those who have bought or will buy a drone for either hobby, commercial, or public use.

You can take the brief survey here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/NMVT9F5

The study is designed to answer the following key questions and more:

  • What’s the best place to purchase a drone (for example online or in a store)?
  • What matters most about your purchase: is it price, availability of accessories, or is service?
  • What was the intended use? Was is for hobby or racing or photography, or was it for work?
  • What are the most popular drone brands by price point?

This research study is being underwritten by BZ Media, the organizer of InterDrone and Drone Dealer Expo, and preliminary results will be presented at the Drone Dealer Expo in Orlando, April 11-13, 2016.

Your individual answers are confidential; responses will be aggregated, analyzed, and summarized in research reports and publications to be issued within the next several months.

At the end of the survey there is an opportunity to receive a free summary report of survey results and the opportunity to enter a drawing to receive one of three $200 VISA gift cards.  Your contact information and email will be kept private and will not be shared with vendors or dealers.

We will be running this survey for a few weeks and results should be published in April. Make sure you subscribe to my blog that way you’ll be notified of the results.

As always, I’m interested in hearing from you.  If have something to say feel free to comment below or email me at colin@droneanalyst.com.

The post New Survey: What’s Your Drone Purchase Experience Like? appeared first on Drone Analyst.


(originally written for DroneCoalition and reproduced here on Skypixel.org)

Yesterday, DroneDeploy announced Volume Measurements, an enhancement to their web-based photogrammetry service that enables rapid volume estimation using only a few clicks of the mouse. At the moment, drone-based volume estimation is commonly used for stockpile monitoring and is one of the few current use cases for drones that has clear ROI benefits.

To calculate volume in DroneDeploy, all a user needs to do is draw a polygon around an object and click “Calculate.”


Calculating volume in DroneDeploy

I get excited about reading announcements, but there is no replacement for actually out new features. Only maps processed after 7am PT on Feb 3 support the new feature, so I asked DroneDeploy’s support team to reprocess one of my old maps of my house. I was preparing to fill in a drained swimming pool and had previously done volume calculations using Pix4Dmapper Pro to see how much dirt would be required. I thought doing the same calculation using DroneDeploy would be educational.

I loaded the reprocessed map, clicked a rough polygon around the pool, and then clicked “Calculate.” After a few seconds, I had my volume calculation.

DroneDeploy’s Volume Measurement tool gave me the volume of my empty pool

Some folks might prefer to do volume measurements using the Digital Surface Model (DSM) view, which is a view that visualizes elevation using color.

Volume Measurement in DroneDeploy in DSM view

In DroneDeploy, you can view 3D maps, but you cannot visualize volume measurements in 3D.

3D view of my drained pool

Two other photogrammetry apps commonly used with drones, Pix4Dmapper Pro and Agisoft PhotoScan, also support volume measurements. Here is the volume measurement of the same pool volume from the same map data using Pix4D:

Volume measurement of my empty pool using Pix4Dmapper Pro

One thing I really like about using Pix4D is that I can interact with my data and annotations. For example, I can show only the measured volume, which gives me a good idea of what kind of space I’m looking at, but it does require running a native app on a computer.

Pix4D’s visualization tools are powerful

And now, the results:

Pix4D reports a volume of 75.87 cubic meters, or 99.23 cubic yards. DroneDeploy reported a volume of 98.4 cubic yards. Those measurements are within 1% of each other.

DroneDeploy’s announcement says that they  have seen accuracy to within 1-2% of professional, ground-based scanning using laser methods, but emphasizes that you must have good data in order to get good results (see their detailed guide for more). Good data is really important not just for volume measurements, but for photogrammetry in general. Having said that, I’ve been impressed by what data from a casual flight produces using modern photogrammetry software. A $799 DJI Phantom 3 Advanced and a $99/month software subscription gets you automatic aerial mapping, orthomosaics, 3D maps, and volume measurements, which is almost unbelievable (see below for more details about pricing).

Pix4D’s products include a lot more detail about measurements and accuracy, and their apps always expose possible error so you know how accurate your data is. Geo-referenced drone data produces maps that are often accurate to just a few centimeters, but adding Ground Control Points (GCPs) and explicit, known measurements of objects on the ground can increase accuracy dramatically. Pix4D’s showcases about volumetric analysis are interesting reads.

I haven’t used AgiSoft PhotoScan’s volume measurement feature, but it definitely looks more complicated, requiring that you close the volume manually before calculations are possible. Both DroneDeploy and Pix4D estimate the base surface from which volume calculations are done. There might be an explicit way in Pix4D to close the volume to measure complex volumes with a strange base surface, but I would probably map a complex base surface before the materials are placed on it (if possible) and then subtract the two volumes.

DroneDeploy paid plans, including the $99/month Pro Plan and $499/month Precision Plan both support volume measurement. You can play with volume measurements for free as part of their 30-day Pro trial, and of course, can use their free plan forever for mapping visualizations and sharing.

To get volume measurements in Pix4D, which is a desktop-based software application that also supports cloud processing, you’ll need Pix4Dmapper Pro, which costs $350/month, with discounts for annual and lifetime plans. Pix4Dmapper Mesh, which is designed for use with drone data, costs $499/year, but doesn’t allow for volume measurements (it only supports linear and area measurements). Pix4D also has a free version of their app called Pix4dmapper Discovery.

If you’re new to photogrammetry and have just read this article, you’re probably now a bit confused now about the various products/services and what they do. The best way to educate yourself about photogrammetry is to put your drone in the air and try it yourself. Both DroneDeploy and Pix4D have free versions and offer time-expiring trials of their paid offerings. If you’re flying a DJI Phantom 3 or Inspire 1, you can use mobile apps from DroneDeploy and Pix4D (Pix4Dcapture) to automatically capture map data from the air, and as I mentioned above, the $799 DJI Phantom 3 Advanced is an absolute steal right now as an aerial platform that can automatically capture maps accurate to just a few centimeters using free software. We live in the future!


“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” – attributed to Yogi Berra

I was recently asked in an interview to discuss four or five trends that I see as major drivers in the commercial drone industry today and what manufacturers and service providers might focus on in the future. That sounds simple enough for an industry analyst, but sometimes predictions are as hard as trying determine where that quote came from. It’s not an exacting science, but it’s certainly better than palm reading.

That said, here are six trends I think will drive key opportunities and challenges for drone manufacturers, service providers, and investors for 2016 and beyond. They are:

  1. Fidelity
  2. Sensors
  3. Mobility
  4. China Incorporated
  5. Virtual and Augmented Reality
  6. Competition

Fidelity

One of the major trends we are seeing in the commercial drone industry is the desire for more fidelity – that is, better image and video resolution. This is not just true for commercial drones but also consumer drones.  So, companies like DJI and Yuneec offer integrated 4K video recording cameras and HD video monitoring for as little as $1,200.  And the price keeps going down and the cameras keep getting better.  Add to that component vendors like Amimon that now offer zero latency 1080p downlinks. I could go on, but fidelity is a major driver of technology development for drones and this will continue well into the future.

A lot of this trend is being driven by the consumer. In our homes, we now have 4K TVs, HD tablets, and smartphones with higher and higher resolution, so the expectation is that a drone will deliver that or better.  As I have reported here and here, not all drone manufacturers are moving fast enough to keep up – especially the legacy defense and aerospace ones.

Sensors

In line with the drive for better fidelity is the trend for better and smaller, more lightweight sensors for drones—such as stereoscopic, ultrasonic, LiDAR, infrared, and spectral sensors.  All of these will help drones perform tasks like collision avoidance, 3D imaging infrared thermography, or improved crop vigor analysis.

The chip manufacturers get this, which is why you see companies like Qualcomm and Intel making their investments and acquisitions and while we see better onboard imaging and better co-production image processing as the investments kick into high gear.

Mobility

A third major driver in the industry right now is mobility.  I alluded to it above.  In the consumer world, the scales have tipped from PCs and TV to mobile devices.  ZenithOptimedia expects mobile devices—either tablet or smart phone—to become the main platform for viewing online video, reaching 52.7% in 2016 and 58.1% in 2017.

Not only that, but statistics on how the majority of enterprises conduct business processes and transactions is tipping toward mobile devices. IDC predicts the U.S. mobile worker population will grow over the next five years to 105.4 million in 2020 and account for nearly three quarters (72.3%) of the total U.S. workforce. One analyst predicts that by 2017 100% of all customer-facing apps and 75% of all employee apps will be built on mobile platform software first. The ‘enabled mobile worker’ is not just a PowerPoint slide title.  It’s a reality—especially in the field service and maintenance industry where drones are beginning to play a significant role.

What this means for drone manufactures and service providers is that their application development is shifting from desktop to mobile apps and, since there is no clear winner, they’ll have to develop apps that are both iOS and Android compatible and release them simultaneously if they want to stay competitive. But I can tell you most firms are struggling with this—even the big ones like DJI.

China Incorporated

Chinese companies both large and small will be dumping consumer drones on the market either to establish market share or increase it. This year’s CES, also known as the Consumer Electronics Show, was a harbinger of things to come.  It saw booths by many newcomers from China like 9 Eagles AEE, Autel Robotics, Ehang, Hexo, and ProDrone, to name a few.

A lot of these are or will be DJI clones. This is already a fun trend to watch—and one to be wary of as Eric Cheng, former Director of Aerial Imaging for DJI, has pointed out here. The problem is DJI already accounts for over 45% of registered commercial drones in the U.S. as reported here. The only other vendor capable of competing with them based on feature and price is Yuneec.

I suspect, in an effort to save a buck, commercial drone service providers will be tempted to try a clone. Ultimately, they will need to choose a compelling user experience, but given the variety and the number of competing vendors, who has time to learn a whole new technology?

Virtual and Augmented Reality

At the top of MarketWatch’s 2016 predictions: The six tech trends that will rule is the prediction that virtual reality (VR) will shine at the consumer level and augmented reality (AR) will continue to prove itself in the workplace. Virtual reality (VR) already has proven itself in video, and Trace is betting on that horse with immersive 360-degree applications for use in both commercial and consumer quadcopter drones.

But the big money is in AR. Enterprise AR apps reduce workers’ reliance on laptops and tablets where they are cumbersome to use—like in dirty or tight spaces. AR glasses enable field service technicians with a hands-free solution that provides access to visualizations of job-critical information and expert knowledge. SAP has already led the field here. Inspection drones will only add to that benefit since the video feed to the technician is really no different from AR glasses.

Competition

A lot can be said about the power of incumbent technologies (like satellite and manned aircraft) that compete with drone services. And a lot can be said about how drone leaders and service providers underestimate that power, especially in agriculture.  We have written about that topic here, and this video of Young Kim, CEO of Digital Harvest, echoes that.

But there is one part of competition in the commercial drone space that doesn’t get talk about a lot, and it’s this:  What will happen when the proposed FAA rules (aka Part 107) become law in mid-2016? My take is it will lower the barrier to entry for new manufacturers and providers.

In theories of economic competition, barriers to entry are obstacles that make it difficult to enter a given market. The term can refer to hindrances a firm faces in trying to enter a market or industry—such as government regulation and patents, or a large, established firm taking advantage of economies of scale—or those an individual faces in trying to gain entrance to a profession—such as education or licensing requirements.

If the rules come in as proposed—that is, with no pilot’s license required for the operator—then the barrier to entry for commercial drone services gets lowered.  It’s only natural that we’ll see an uptick of new entrants (they just have to take a test) and we’ll see downward price pressure.

We see this as a major disruption to the drone service provider market and those already with a business because they’ve already got a Section 333 exemption from the FAA to operate commercially.

These firms—the ones that operate legally now—will suddenly face more competition, whether their business is real estate photography or infrastructure inspection. There simply will be more drone pilots and more drone service providers, and with that the law of demand and supply kicks in. The more supply you have, the lower prices go.

You can find more of our insights on these SlideShare presentations. I’m always interested to hear your thoughts and insights about the commercial drone market. Comment or write to me at colin@droneanalyst.com.

Image credit: The Fortune Teller, by Caravaggio (1594–95; canvas; Louvre), depicting a palm reading

The post Six Trends Driving the Commercial Drone Market in 2016 and Beyond appeared first on Drone Analyst.


Intel (in collaboration with Ars Electronica Futurelab) showed off 100 small drones swarming in concert to a performance of a bastardized version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (incorporating Intel’s jingle). The demonstration was pulled off in Flugplatz Ahrenlohe, Tornesch, Germany, last November, and the swarming stunt won a Guinness World Record for “Most Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) airborne simultaneously.” Intel CEO Brian Krzani showed footage of the event for the first time during his CES keynote talk in January.


By Jonathan Rupprecht, Esq. for Drone Analyst

This past year, as I attended many drone conferences, I was struck by how eager public safety officials and first responders are to learn how they can incorporate drones into their operations.  Their curiosity is not without good reason.  Small drones with video and infrared cameras are excellent tools for things like situational awareness of critical incidents, search and rescue operations, crime scene processing, and fire damage assessments.

If you are part of one of these outfits and are considering an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) for your operation, then you should know the FAA treats Public Aircraft Operations differently than civilian aircraft operations.  At first glance, the FAA’s requirements for Public Aircraft Operations seem overwhelming, but take heart.  Some of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) do not apply to you, and hopefully this post will clarify and ease what’s required of you.

At the outset I need to say I highly recommend speaking with someone who is knowledgeable about the FAA’s FAR’s, especially if you are seeking to fly your aircraft as a public aircraft operation. The FAA will make sure you follow the very strict requirements to be classified as a public aircraft. If you do not meet the requirements, you will be considered a civil aircraft and could be in violation of multiple regulations.

At the outset, you should know about these three benefits of public aircraft operations status:

  1. The pilot of a public aircraft does NOT need to be an FAA licensed pilot.

This comes as one of the biggest surprises to public agencies. Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Section 61.3says, “(a) Required pilot certificate for operating a civil aircraft of the United States. No person may serve as a required pilot flight crewmember of a civil aircraft of the United States[.]” Notice that is said “civil aircraft”, not “aircraft” which would mean all aircraft. Instead, public agencies self-certify their pilots which means that training can be specifically tailored to meet the needs of the public agency as opposed to picking one of the less applicable manned pilot certificates.

  1. The aircraft flown does not need to have an FAA airworthiness certificate.

Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Section 91.203(a), “no person may operate a civil aircraft unless it has within it the following: (1) An appropriate and current airworthiness certificate[.]” Additionally, 91.401 says, “(a) This subpart prescribes rules governing the maintenance, preventive maintenance, and alterations of U.S.-registered civil aircraft operating within or outside of the United States.” Notice that they both said “civil aircraft.” This means that public aircraft operations self-certify their own aircraft and maintenance.

Are you starting to see a pattern here?

It’s important to note you cannot slack on operations or maintenance standards.  If there is an accident, depending on your entity and the jurisdiction, there is potential for liability. Civilian aircraft are flying according to the safety standard created by the FAA. If you self-certify your pilots, aircraft, and maintenance, then the burden will be more on YOU to prove that you, operating under your own standards, were safe, as opposed to saying you flew under the FAA’s standards which they said were safe. It might be helpful to get someone who is extremely familiar with drones to help set up maintenance standards. (I would suggest Gus Calderon, a commercial pilot who ran his own Part 135 aircraft charter company and has extensive expensive in multi-rotors.)

  1. Public aircraft operators can rapidly deploy their drones in emergencies.

Commercial operators operating under FAA Section 333 exemptions and their ‘blanket’ certificates of waiver or authorizations (COA) are required to file a notice to airmen (NOTAM) at least 24 hours before operations. This is extremely impracticable because 24 hours is a long time and the NOTAMs are usually for a particular location.

Public aircraft operators can ask for their COAs to not have a 24-hour NOTAM. Moreover, provided that a public aircraft operator already has a COA in place at some location, they can rapidly move that location and obtain an emergency COA for another location outside the geographic boundaries of their original COA. Keep in mind that this all is with the understanding you have a COA in place already, so public safety officials should start looking into setting up things before they need them. Like the Boy Scout Motto, “Be Prepared.”

I hope this helps inspire you to use unmanned aircraft for public safety purposes. Public aircraft operators have a difficult time completing their jobs, but the Federal Aviation Regulations are not as difficult as you might think.  Stay safe!

The post 3 Things Public Safety Officials Should Know About Drones appeared first on Drone Analyst.


Hi, everyone! Are you going to buy a toy drone this holiday season? If you are, I have a plea: don’t buy crappy drones! And if you do, don’t fly them outside! I was interviewed as an expert today as part of a TV segment that will air next Tuesday. Part of the show involved showing what it’s like to buy and use random, no-name “drones” (toy quadcopters). The reporter was actually not bad as a first-time pilot, especially when tasked with flying toy quadcopters outside, but during an unsupervised moment (I went inside to get something), she flew one of the toy drones too high (about 50 feet up). Immediately, the wind took it out a couple hundred feet from us. I ran outside, took over the controls, and tried to fly it back; unfortunately, we were flying a fairly crappy toy quadcopter designed for indoor use, and it could not overcome the wind. Eventually, the quadcopter descended out of sight; luckily, we were flying over a shrubby hill, and the toy quad was small and light.

(the rest of this article is at my personal website, echeng.com)


What a difference a year makes.

Last year at this time, I reflected back on the news and trends of the commercial drone markets of 2014 and wrote about the mixed state of affairs in the U.S.  Back then, drones got considerable media hype and you would have thought that drones could do anything from guide your car in the wilderness, to save the planet from starvation.  In reality, we were just beginning to see the very first FAA grants of regulatory exemptions for commercial activity—which was nothing more than filming on closed sets.

Contrast that with this year, one in which we’ve seen more than 2,500 Section 333 grants for all kinds of commercial activity and the press’s narrative that ‘drones are cool’ turned to ‘drones are a headache’. Even so, there’s more going on than just public consternation.

In this post, I’ll review what I think were the six most significant commercial market trends for drones in 2015 set in the context of movies and myths.  Enjoy.

  1. Casino Royale: Venture Capital

In the 2006 movie Casino Royale, James Bond attempts to bankrupt a terrorist financier by beating him in a high-stakes poker game. The plot twists and the tournament culminates in a $115-million winning hand for Bond—who discovers later the woman he fell in love with has stolen the winnings.

Just how high is the game of drone investment?  According to CB Insights data, we’ve seen $199 million in 30 deals year-to-date. That’s more money invested in commercial drone businesses in the first nine months of this year alone than all previous years before.

These investments have been funded mostly by venture capital firms like Accel Partners, Andreessen Horowitz, and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. But other firms—like GE Ventures, Qualcomm, and Intel—are also investing to cash in on what they see are growth markets for their chips or IoT offerings.

The gold rush may be over. As pointed out here, there’s a growing sentiment that we’ve reached a precipice. Private valuation euphoria seems to be dissipating. Tech IPOs are down (and the tech startups that have gone public are generally under-performing). Volatility in broader markets is creating uncertainty.

Will these firms get stiffed like James Bond?  Some will. Just look at the offices some occupy in San Francisco (big rents!) and the high cost of high-caliber employees.  Not to mention the assumed crazy forecasts included in these firms’ business models (like the ones I’ve referenced in Diversity and Hype in Commercial Drone Market Forecasts). In 2016, we may not see a “crash and burn,” but keep your eye out for a quiet “right sizing.”

  1. Magic Carpet: Drone Air Traffic Management

In nearly all the legends and folklore, the magic carpet is used to portray the power of the carpet’s master. One legend has it that the Queen of Sheba gifted King Solomon a green and gold flying carpet studded with precious jewels. It is said that this flying carpet held spectacular powers. Made from a special type of clay with magnetic properties (and since the earth is a magnet), it held the ability to hover several hundreds of feet above the ground. With the carpet, Solomon was able to travel vast distances, but not without some big mishaps.  In legend, the carpet seems to be a metaphor for his power and reach.

A lot of companies like Amazon, BNSF, BP Google, and even Walmart, want a magic carpet, too.  They want a low-altitude air traffic management framework for drones so they can deliver goods and perform operations beyond visual light of sight (BVLOS)—and that’s exactly what NASA has promised in the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Traffic Management (UTM) project. NASA’s UTM piggybacks on the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen).

The present FAA plan emphasizes use of small UAS in areas outside airport locations, which would be ‘geo-fenced’ to avoid drones interfering with large vehicle landing and take-off activities. But for all these future UTM plans, ADS-B technology (or ADS-B-like signal integration) is a key element for ‘tracking’ and reporting the position of a drone.

The problem is ADS-B use as mandated by the FAA is fraught with shortcomings.  For one, ADS-B is not mandated for use in Class G where most small drones will fly. On top of that, ADS-B “In” (the part that tells you where other aircraft are) isn’t mandated for anyone. Additionally, some pilots already feel the new activity of ADS-B distracts too much, and small aviation flyers may choose to ignore new input or not update their systems.

So, here we are working on a magic carpet solution to low-altitude flight management, and the mistake may be that we are trying to solve it with an improperly regulated flight management solution. We’ve detailed these and ten other issues in the study ADS-B and Its Use for Small Drone Traffic Management which you can read more about here. We also discussed the NASA UTM on the sUAS News Podcast: Drone Hype Cycle.

  1. Enter the Dragon: DJI

When it first looked like there could be commercial uses for drones, analysts assumed that defense avionics and electronics suppliers would lead the market because they had a head start. Then came DJI.

Often considered one of the greatest martial arts films of all time, Enter the Dragon (starring Bruce Lee) was the first Chinese martial arts film to have been produced by a major Hollywood studio, Warner Bros. The 1973 film is largely set in Hong Kong.  I think the name is a fitting description for DJI, which is headquartered in Shenzhen, China, just outside Hong Kong.  According to The Economist, the company is at the forefront of the civilian-drone industry.

DJI estimates it already has about 70 percent of the commercial market worldwide and a larger portion of the consumer market.  This plays out when looking at FAA data.  As we reported in sUAS News, DJI is the first drone company to break the magical 1000 N registered airframes, and they still hold a commanding lead with a reported 44% market share as of December 8, 2015.

DJI continues to release new product after new product and leads other manufacturers with technology like geo-fencing and even micro investments with its SkyFund.  I predict this will continue well into the future given their current lead, their strategic partnership investment with Hasselblad, and their recent investment into an R&D facility in Palo Alto, California.

  1. Our Gang: Consumer Drone Registration

Our Gang (also known as The Little Rascals) is a series of American comedy short films about a group of poor neighborhood kids and their misadventures of saving others and sticking together. Their motto was: One for all, and all for one. And while that’s not the motto you would normally hear from such a diverse group as those on the UAS Registration Task Force Aviation Rulemaking Committee, it is the outcome.  And what an outcome it is. You can read their recommendations here. Some mainstream publications like this one are describing the consumer registration process as “becoming a pilot” or “getting a pilot’s license.” Which you’d have to do when you purchase a $200 hobbyist drone. Really?

Just as we see in the Our Gang films, the outcome is not always optimal and the methods used to get there questionable. Jonathan Rupprecht has a good analysis on the outcome here. Another analysis here calls it “ineffective and unenforceable.” To be fair there were dissenters in the group. For example, the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), which is the world’s largest community-based organization, made this statement on the recommendations.

Nothing has been put in place yet, but one thing is becoming clearer: the FAA’s method to put hobby drone registration in place is specious. A thorough legal analysis by Morrison and Forrester here spells out the FAA’s procedural shortcuts and how the registry would present legal challenges and confusion for commercial drone registration.

  1. Best in Show: Drone Expos

2015 was the year we saw a proliferation of the drone conferences. These ranged from consumer to commercial expos.  I heard early from vendors who straddle both markets that they could not attend all, so they had to choose. In March I gave a quick list of criteria to help navigate the confusion in Five Tips for Navigating the Drone Expo Fad.

I reported then and Gary Mortimer reported here we are still in the ‘inflated expectation phase’ of the hype cycle for drones, so it’s anybody’s guess which conferences will shake out.  Still at every show I attended this year, these two questions came up: Which drone show was the best? And which ones will you attend next year?

The question reminds me of the comedy film Best in Show. The film follows five entrants in a prestigious dog show and focuses on the slightly surreal interactions among the various owners and handlers as they travel to the show. Afterwards, the film explores what each character is doing after the competition—and this is the real drama for drone vendors: What happens after the show?  So the better question is not about how many connections you make at the show, but are shows in general a good channel at which to engage prospects?  I think that topic (as well an exploration of distribution channels) is worthy of some Drone Analyst research in 2016. Look for more on this topic soon.

  1. Waiting for Godot: You

In the absurdist play Waiting for Godot, two bedraggled companions, Vladimir and Estragon, wait endlessly and in vain for the arrival of an unspecified person called Godot. The play opens on an outdoor scene and the weary Estragon mutters “Nothing to be done.”  When Estragon suddenly decides to leave, Vladimir reminds him that they must stay and wait for Godot. Unfortunately, the pair cannot agree on where or when they are expected to meet with this Godot. They only know to wait at a tree, and there is indeed a leafless one nearby.

For many of us, it seems we have been waiting for Godot, I mean the FAA, to finalize the rules for commercial use of small UAS. We got the Small UAS Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) earlier this year and the 60-day public comment period closed on April 24, 2015. Sure, as noted above, we now have about 2,500 Section 333 petitions granted, but that does not make an industry.  Everyone wants to know—will Godot arrive in 2016?  The tree we wait under now is pretty much leafless, and we hope the rules will help our industry garner growth.

What should we expect in 2016?

I said this last year, and I’ll say it again.  A lot depends on the forthcoming small drone rule from the FAA.  If it looks at all like the NPRM, then the U.S. commercial market should expect moderate growth—but there will be winners and losers.  If the FAA changes it, for example lowers the altitude ceiling from 500 feet above ground level to 200 feet, then growth will be seriously hampered.

You can find more of our 2015 insights on these SlideShare presentations. I’m always interested to hear your thoughts and insights about the commercial drone market. Comment or write to me at colin@droneanalyst.com.

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