The drones are coming
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The global market for commercial applications of drone technology is currently estimated at about $2 billion and will grow to as much as $127 billion by 2020, according PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. As drones begin to gain traction into the everyday day life of the average American, we must address the safety and security concerns of this new drone economy.

Nearly every day one can find stories of drones being used for nefarious activities: from contraband delivery into our prisons, to the narco-terrorist using drones as the platform of choice for drug and human trafficking, to nuisance drones flying around our nation’s airports and even drones flying over the fence at the White House. This year alone, President Obama declared that ISIL was looking towards the weaponization of commercial drones in order to bring terror to the United States.

To create the necessary drone infrastructure in the U.S., we will have to bring together innovative technologies, new policies and the creation of well-informed regulations that support the drone economy as well as the safety and privacy concerns of the individual citizen. And, yes, we can have both.

As drones enter the market place, new technologies and updated policies will be needed from a public safety standpoint. These new technologies will range from mechanical solutions to kinetic based solutions (jammers/direct energy), to new uses of “cyber” solutions.  In order for these technologies to be developed, there needs to be increased public investment, and clear policies which encourage and reward increased private investment.

In order to avoid unnecessary interruption in the new drone economy, lawmakers must develop and support policies that ensure a safe-drone economy. These actions are the following:

  • Policy and regulation changes to the current definition of “aircraft”, as it relates to drones use in both a recreational and commercial setting. Current Federal Aviation Regulations Parts 101 and 107 do not allow for the securing of an aircraft that may occupy an airspace that would require action against set drone.
  • Investment into non-kinetic based technologies that allows for positive control of commercial or government airspace. By allowing entities like prisons, amusement parks and critical infrastructure to secure their airspace non-kinetically, you reduce risk to both the infrastructure and safety of the individuals operating in the area. In addition, non-kinetic based technologies support the safe return of the drone while allowing commercial drones to operate safely in the airspace being protected.
  • Technology based solutions will need policy support and potential changes to current 20th century regulations that do not address the 21st century economy. An example is the use of electronic countermeasure technologies from “jammers” (high power solutions that impose disruptions to all communications) to more novel solutions like “cyber” protocol manipulation. Understanding the technology strengths and weakness is important when making proactive changes to current laws and regulations.

The government's research and investment on counter-UAS technologies has focused on military force-protection scenarios. These technologies and interdiction methods are not necessarily appropriate for small UAS operating within the civil airspace of the United States. Recently, MITRE, a nonprofit organization held the MITRE Challenge: Countering Unauthorized Unmanned Aircraft Systems that look at systems that were:

  • Aligned with domestic safety and legal requirements, allowing deployment in a populated, U.S. domestic environment.
  • Affordable, enabling potentially large-scale deployment to protect a wide variety of interests, from critical infrastructure to sensitive security locations.
  • Technologically scalable, allowing for protection against multiple simultaneous aircraft and those aircrafts designed to defeat interdiction.
  • Innovative, offering unique ideas and/or additional value, such as the ability to identify the operator of a threatening aircraft.

Having participated in this event, I would suggest more government sponsored events like the MITRE Challenge, these events are critical to both understanding the problem and as well as the potential technology solutions.  The outcomes will support the decision making process and prevent reactionary decisions that only delay the market growth and increase costs in the long run.  We know the drones are coming and we must have open discussions that lead to proactive approaches to developing and embracing solutions with smart technology investments, policy changes and the growth of the new drone economy and ancillary markets.

We are in the first days of an exciting, once-in-a-generation technological advancement.  In a few short years, the use of delivery drones, driverless vehicles and remote aquatic robotics will seem routine and common place.  We need to heed lessons from the early days of the automobile and recognize that society will face public security issues and resource allocation debates related to how and where such technologies can be utilized. If we declare now which side of the road to drive, which color light we stop for and how one is license to operate to drive the transition to a drone/robotics society will be much smoother.

We must move to action, the drones are coming and we must fly as fast as the drones do.

Jonathan Hunter is CEO Department 13 International Ltd 

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.