When I heard about the FAA’s Part 107 drone regulations, I knew immediately they would profoundly accelerate innovation. These regulations, implemented in August, allowed businesses to fly drones under limited conditions and apply for certain restrictions to be waived to enable flights of greater scope.
Most waiver applications have been filed for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights and night flights — both vital to the delivery, utility, security and construction industries. By the end of October, the FAA had processed 6 percent and approved roughly 2.5 percent of the waiver applications, causing some to express concerns. But while others may be anxious, I believe that this is the beginning of a productive partnership between the FAA, industry and the American people.
I know this because my drone service company, Sharper Shape, originally went through the same regulatory process in Finland. We were on the ground floor of the industry, forging strong relationships with Finnish officials and political leaders like Prime Minister Juha Sipilä and demonstrating the immense economic potential of drones in the utility space.
Out of these efforts, Sharper Shape was the first UAV company in Europe to be granted commercial scale permission to fly BVLOS drones, weighing up to 55 lbs., for utility asset inspections. And, in September 2015 we completed our first BVLOS delivery flight demonstration in urban downtown Helsinki.
Industry experts are predicting that drones will have a large impact on the U.S. commercial sectors in five to 10 years. But given my experience in Finland, I think there is a strong case to be made that commercial drones will land next year. Here’s why.
The FAA is Committed to Industry Success
With the recent Part 107 waiver process, the FAA has opened the door for serious, safety-oriented companies to utilize commercial drones in their everyday operations. The FAA demonstrated a strategic, long-sighted approach when they created this flexible waiver mechanism that allows the organization to dynamically evaluate and approve acceptable means of compliance for safety requirements.
A departure from the traditional aviation regulation process, the performance-based criteria for waiver applications puts the United States ahead of global regulation. The FAA can now swiftly respond to the ever-evolving technical and safety capabilities.
The FAA has also announced that by the end of the calendar year the organization will make steps toward regulating drone flights over people. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta is confident in the organization’s efforts to successfully regulate drones. “The FAA forecasts there could be as many as 600,000 unmanned aircraft used commercially during the first year after this rule is in place,” Huerta said. “Drones are helping to create a whole new means of realizing the American dream.”
The Technology is Ready
Setting the regulations aside, the technology and business models have already been well-established. Industry giants like Google and Amazon have been pushing for regulations to catch up to their own progress and, in some cases, helping to add information to the FAA’s knowledge base.
This year, Amazon formed a partnership with UK aviation regulators allowing the ecommerce giant to test and develop a new drone delivery system. Amazon’s end goal is to operate drones that will use satellite positioning to locate their delivery address and fly to a maximum height of 400 feet and then identify a marker for safe landing.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos confirmed that drone technology is not the biggest obstacle to success. “One day Prime Air deliveries will be as common as seeing a mail truck,” Bezos said. “The technical problems are very straight ahead. The biggest issue, or the biggest thing that needs to be worked on, is the regulatory side.”
In August, Alphabet, parent company of Google, gained permission to test their Project Wing delivery service with drone flights conducted at six sanctioned test sites. The flights will include both cargo and beyond visual line of sight components, both requiring specific permission by current FAA regulations.
In the utility industry, BVLOS drone flights will transform how power line and other infrastructure inspections are conducted. Drone inspections allow utilities to more efficiently identify and predict issues with vegetation overgrowth and broken components. Sharper Shape has partnered with Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the association that represents all U.S. investor-owned electric companies, to demonstrate and develop these commercial drone flights for electric companies. The duo submitted a waiver application to the FAA for permission to demonstrate BVLOS drone flights with select U.S. utilities.
Public Perception is Shifting Quickly
The last part of the equation is the willingness of the American people to accept drones as a regular part of their lives. Media attention on military drone strikes has influenced the public perception of all drones, falsely painting commercial drones in a bad light. Yet, the initial fear of the unknown is quickly wearing off as civilian drones become more commonplace.
The USPS Office of Inspector General released a report last month that surveyed the public’s thoughts on drone delivery. It found that more Americans like the concept of drone delivery (44 percent) than dislike it, while 23 percent haven’t decided. One of the most important findings of the report was that exposure to information about drone delivery correlated with greater interest in the idea. The more knowledge the public has about drone technology, the more comfortable they will feel with it.
Another study from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, found that people cared more about the function of the drone versus the design. Participants were more swayed to rate their acceptance of drones as higher or lower based on what the drone was made to do. For example, 93 percent of the public supported aerial drone flights when they were utilized for search and rescue operations. Other industries that generated positive support for drone use included geological mapping, traffic monitoring on highway routes and international border patrol.
As businesses begin to demonstrate how drones are capable of making processes more efficient, lowering costs for consumers and saving lives, the public perception of drones will become even more positive than it is now.
The Future of Commercial Drones is Now
This past year was indispensable for the U.S. drone industry. The FAA made substantial headway with the Part 107 regulations, private businesses poured time and resources into developing technology, and Americans began warming to the idea of drones. Next year, we will build on all of the progress we’ve made thus far, and I look forward to participating at the forefront of this flourishing industry. The United States is ready to launch commercial drones in 2017. Will your business be ready?
Tero Heinonen is CEO of Sharper Shape Inc. He is an entrepreneurial and experienced start-up executive with a track record in international sales, tech and business management.
The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.