Why we need a clear legal framework for flying drones

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), commonly known as drones, were once used exclusively by the military. No longer. According to a business insider’s report, civilian and commercial drones are now expected to drive the market, growing 19% annually over the next five years—nearly four times faster than military drones. By 2035, there could be more commercial drones in operation than manned aircraft.

Aerospace regulators are not so sure, however. The UK government says the public is most concerned about being spied on. Others worry about drones falling on people or colliding with planes, as nearly happened in the US last month. So what can be done to keep civilians safe, while enabling the UAV industry to flourish and reach its economic potential?

The Industrial Internet could generate $15trn of added value by 2030. But barriers must fall before the approach becomes widespread.

According to Paul Rigby of ARPAS-UK, one option would be to invent a “detect and avoid system” installed onboard drones, thus reducing the risk of mid-air collisions. Such a system could help relax the requirement, present in most countries, that UAVs be flown within the pilot’s line of sight. Amazon is currently testing the approach in Canada, which, along with Australia and France, is among the few countries currently open to drone flight tests beyond sight range.

“France is ahead of many countries in terms of drone regulations,” says Emmanuel Noirhomme, COO of Redbird. The country has taken a pragmatic approach to regulation, setting basic rules for civilian drones in 2012 and updating them this year after an 18-month implementation test period. It also differentiates between drone uses. While out-of-sight commercial flights require licensing, for example, short-range recreational ones do not.

Another idea is to have a central air traffic control system designed specifically for drones. NASA is spearheading the development of such a system, which would work together with Airware’s osFlexPilot, a drone autopilot operating system.

The problem, says Colin Snow, a drone analyst, is that “nobody wants to run it.” NASA, he points out, has stressed it will only create the system and the US federal government is already struggling to get funding for next-generation air traffic control for commercial aircraft. The answer, Mr Snow says, might be for businesses to run the air traffic control system, but they will do so only if they can make money from it.

Companies providing cloud-based software solutions for drones, like Skyward or Redbird, could be well positioned for this—for example, by offering traffic control services to those who use their platform. Mobile operators might be a partner of choice as well. Verizon, for example, is currently working with NASA to research whether cell towers could be used to monitor drones.

Meanwhile, Redbird is working with Airware to integrate Redbird’s platform with osFlexPilot and hopes to run drone test flights in the US, where regulations are stringent and slow to update. “We’re joining forces there. They’re working more on keeping the drones safe, we’re working on software,” says Mr Noirhomme.

While France remains the hotbed for drones at the moment, Mr Noirhomme thinks the US and UK can catch up—but they will need to change their mindsets: “It’s unrealistic to think you can control all the drones. Either you put in a legal framework, or you can’t control it [the increasing number of drones].”

This post first appeared on GE LookAhead. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Mary-Ann Russon, Technology Reporter with International Business Times UK.

Image: An airplane flies over a drone during the Polar Bear Plunge on Coney Island in the Brooklyn borough of New York January 1, 2015. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri.

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