For Many Commercial Drone Operators, the Future Is Now

The Federal Aviation Administration and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International recently hosted the second annual UAS Symposium, which brought together hundreds of stakeholders from industry, government and academia to discuss issues concerning the integration of unmanned aircraft systems, commonly called drones, into the U.S. airspace. With new FAA estimates suggesting that more than 400,000 UAS could be flown for commercial purposes in the next five years, it is more important than ever that industry and government work together to ensure regulations are enacted that allow American businesses to reap the full benefits UAS offer.

In August, the FAA’s small UAS rule went into effect. Also known as Part 107, the rule allows anyone to fly UAS for civil and commercial purposes if they follow a set of regulations — flying below 400 feet, only during daylight hours and within line of sight, among others. Since then, the demand for commercial UAS has exploded across a variety of industries, including agriculture, real estate, and oil and gas. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced at the UAS Symposium that more than 37,000 people have received remote pilot certificates in the past seven months, with more applying every day. What’s more, he said more than 770,000 UAS, primarily those used for recreational purposes, have been registered with the FAA in the past 15 months.

Much has been accomplished, but there is still more to be done. A new AUVSI analysis of Part 107 waivers shows that businesses are already seeking to conduct more expansive operations than those allowed under current rules. To date, more than 300 waivers have been granted to companies in 44 states – the vast majority of them are small businesses with fewer than 10 employees. More than 97 percent of waivers allow for nighttime operations, while others allow for flights over people, operating multiple UAS and operating UAS from moving vehicles.

These expanded operations were on full display in February during Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl halftime show, which was made possible by Intel’s waivers to operate multiple UAS at night. BNSF Railway received a waiver to conduct inspections of its rail network beyond line of sight. Other practical applications of these waivers include nighttime search and rescue operations and filming after sunset.

The hundreds of waivers, the tens of thousands of certificated remote pilots and the hundreds of thousands of UAS registrations make it clear that the commercial UAS industry is poised for incredible growth. Industry and government stakeholders must harness this enthusiasm and continue to work together to craft a true, holistic plan for UAS integration into the airspace, including allowing nighttime operations, platforms above 55 pounds, access to higher altitudes and beyond line-of-sight operations.

There are some immediate steps that the FAA can take to make full UAS integration a reality. First, the FAA can prioritize its budget request to Congress to facilitate the regulatory actions that integration efforts would require. In addition, the FAA must recognize the growing presence of UAS in the airspace and include industry stakeholders in conversations regarding broader airspace issues, such as air traffic control reform and a cohesive spectrum strategy that includes UAS. Establishing regulations for expanded UAS operations rather than granting permission on a case-by-case basis would also help enhance the safety and security of the airspace.

An AUVSI report found that in the first decade following full UAS integration into the airspace, the industry stands to create more than 100,000 jobs and more than $82 billion in economic impact. There’s no doubt that these numbers could go even higher under the right regulatory framework. Industry-government collaboration has gotten us to this point, and it is also needed to further the conversation, integrate UAS into the airspace and unlock the true potential of UAS technology.


Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the largest trade association for the unmanned systems (drones) and robotics industry.

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