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Seven Trends That Will Shape the Commercial Drone Industry in 2019

By Colin Snow

Companies that use drones to support tower construction, inspection and maintenance can expect to see drone services expand, but state regulation looms.

This will be another big year for the commercial drone industry. Last year saw a wider rollout of the FAA’s low-altitude authorization and notification capability (LAANC) program that provides access to controlled airspace near airports, the launch of the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) integration pilot program from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and some significant developments for new regulatory frameworks for drones in Europe and in India. This year, expect more of the same — but with a few twists.

Trend 1 – Expanded business use:Adoption of aerial drones and drone technology will not be as widespread as some might expect. Instead, it will grow in select industries like agriculture, construction, insurance, mining and aggregates, public safety and first responders, oil and gas, survey engineering, telecommunications and utilities.

Last year, companies began to move beyond the provisional use of drones — where they were outsourcing to determine a drone program’s feasibility — to standing up or expanding internal teams to manage workflows and data. This year, expect to see reports about companies expanding their teams and adding use cases that take advantage of the waivers allowing limited beyond visual line of sight operations.

Trend 2 – Slower, more steady growth: The number of certified remote pilots is the benchmark for commercial drone industry growth. That’s because, almost uniformly around the world, regulations demand each drone operation have one pilot. Last year, the number of FAA-certified remote pilots grew about 50 percent over the previous year, to approximately 115,000. That increase was mostly made up of pilots who work for companies, enterprises, or public agencies with internal drone programs as opposed to pilots who operate for drone-based service providers. It’s clear that commercial industries are now driving growth rather than individual interest as in years past.

One thing to keep in mind when looking at FAA numbers is that the month-over-month growth rate is beginning to slow. The partial U.S. government shutdown delayed the grant of new certificates. The growth rate may also slow further because some drone-based service providers that are not making money (most aren’t) will choose not to recertify as a remote pilot.

Trend 3 – Further vendor consolidation: Much of the industry’s growth so far has come from the early hype about how drones were going to transform industries, as well as huge forecasts that fueled investment. Over the years, we’ve seen those dreams turn to smoke as vendors such as 3D Robotics and GoPro fell out of the sky. Last year was no exception. The $118 million collapse of Airware and the release of Parrot’s disappointing financial results give us a glimpse into what will come.

Still, there is good news, and you can expect more moves such as PrecisionHawk’s acquisitions as vendors seek leadership positions in key industries and secure new revenue streams.

Trend 4 – Public distrust and civil liability: Despite the benefits of commercial drone use, the general public still has concerns about drones. These are focused on safety, security, privacy and public nuisance. After the Gatwick Airport debacle, expect more headlines in 2019 of sightings of unauthorized drones and the coming drone apocalypse. In many ways, these stories hurt legitimate commercial operators who often need to gain permission from reluctant landowners so they can perform inspections and survey maps for infrastructure unreachable by other means.

In the United States, there is another tea kettle about to boil over. A little-known but highly influential group known as the Uniform Law Commission (ULC) will continue to work on a proposed Tort Law Relating to Drones Act, which concerns drones and privacy. If state governments adopt its proposal, we could see an arbitrary line drawn 200 feet in the sky that would establish a new aerial trespass zone that gives property owners the right to establish no-fly zones. Right now, the ULC draft goes much further than any existing state or federal law and, if enacted, would create a complicated patchwork of differing state laws that inhibit commercial operations. Until then, expect to see more local and state laws aiming to protect people’s privacy from drones.

For example, a Pennsylvania law that took effect on Jan. 12 makes it unlawful to use a drone if the operator intentionally or knowingly conducts surveillance of another person in a private place. It also prohibits operating a drone in a way that places another person in fear of bodily injury. These offenses carry a fine of up to $300. The law makes it a second-degree felony to use a drone to deliver, provide or furnish contraband in violation of other laws.

Trend 5 – More regulation (maybe):Some predict 2019 will be the year the FAA finally implements a requirement for remote identification (Drone ID) for all drones, recreational and commercial, flying in the United States. It is expected this will be combined with a new rule for flights over people for small drones. But there is a big difference between the FAA proposing a rule (called a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking or NPRM) and that rule becoming law. The difference can be anywhere from six to nine months. So it’s likely we’ll see a proposed rule, but implementation will be like Waiting for Godot.

To be clear, Drone ID is not a slam dunk, and the specifics of the ID signature are still being debated within the FAA. Even so, Drone ID needs to exist for unmanned traffic management (UTM) to become a reality. UTM should help enable some of the most talked-about use cases for drones, from package delivery to aerial taxi services, but don’t expect this first iteration of remote ID to live up to the headlines or vendor expectations of a global autonomous drone network, because that would ignore the arduous political processes in each country or region to make UTM even possible.

Trend 6 – DJI’s continued dominance:SZ DJI Technology (DJI), a Chinese company, continues to dominate the market and has made gains this year in every product category, from drone aircraft at all price ranges, to add-on payloads, to software. Recent survey data shows DJI is still the dominant brand for drone aircraft purchases, with a 74 percent global market share. Much of DJI’s dominance can be attributed to its aggressive product development, technological advancements and partner development in the enterprise channel. Last year, the company released two new series of enterprise products (Phantom 4 RTK and Mavic 2 Enterprise) that target industrial users. It’s safe to predict their leadership will continue given their strategic investment with Hasselblad, their recent investment in a research and development facility in Palo Alto, California, and their partnerships in the enterprise space. DJI formed such a partnership with Microsoft.

Trend 7 – Sensors, software and artificial intelligence (AI) advancements:Along with the new imaging sensor integration announcements in 2019 (such as smaller, more lightweight light detection and ranging [lidar] equipment), expect to see imaging software advancements as companies seek to combine RGB (color imaging), thermal imaging, orthomosaic, and data from internet-of-things (IoT) sensors. More aerial imaging and mapping software firms are likely to announce AI capabilities. Right now, most of this is cloud-based machine learning (deep learning and predictive analytics), where datasets are trained by specialized teams. Already, there are some drone-based artificial intelligence (AI) solutions for image recognition/machine vision, but it’s still early in the technology development cycle, and AI is near peak hype.

Some big news for 2019 could be workflow integration of drone data and workflow into predictive maintenance and service solutions, as well as enterprise asset management systems such as those from IBM, INFOR, Oracle and SAP. Capabilities could include documentation, tracking and GIS data integration. That may bring a yawn to some, but when you can connect the dots and show the effect of drone data on the balance sheet, CFOs and CEOs will take notice and drive further enterprise adoption.

Colin Snow, a Part 107 FAA certified remote pilot, is CEO and founder of Skylogic Research, a research, content and advisory services firm supporting participants in the commercial unmanned aerial systems industry. He is a 25-year technology industry veteran with a background in manufacturing, electronics, digital imaging, field service, software, research, and mobility. His email address [email protected] This article first appeared in Forbes.

FAA Considers New Drone Rules

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is eyeing new rules and a pilot project to allow drones to fly overnight and over people without waivers under certain conditions, according to an announcement by U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) Secretary Elaine Chao.

On Dec. 14 of last year, there were nearly 1.3 million registered drones and more than 116,000 registered drone operators in the United States.

“Drones are well on their way to mainstream deployment,” Chao said. “They are widely used by hobbyists, by first responders, in rescue and recovery efforts, and to inspect infrastructure.”

The proposed changes to Part 107 would attempt to balance the need to mitigate safety risks without inhibiting technological and operational advances, according to the DoT.

“Let us note that the Department is keenly aware that there are legitimate public concerns about drones, concerning safety, security and privacy,” Chao said. “Recent events overseas have underscored concerns about the potential for drones to disrupt aviation and the national airspace.”

As a result, the DoT will launch two initiatives to address drone safety and national security, soliciting recommendations to reduce the risks of integrating drones into the national airspace.

A pilot project will take place through September 2019 to develop and demonstrate a traffic management system to safely integrate drone flights within the nation’s airspace system. Also, the pilot project will gather data for future rulemakings.

Additionally, the DoT awarded three contracts to commercial service entities to develop technology to provide flight planning, communications, separation and weather services for these drones, which will operate under 400 feet.

Drone Tower Inspection Market to Get New Entrant

By J. Sharpe Smith, Senior Editor

5×5 Technologies, a St. Petersburg, Florida-based firm focused on improving the accuracy and usability of data collected by commercial drones, plans to launch a drone-powered asset inspection service in Japan in spring 2019 in partnership with Tokyo-based SoftBank Corp.

In August, SoftBank invested $4.4 million in 5×5 in an effort to improve the aging of social infrastructure and facilities in Japan through strategic maintenance and management using high-definition 3D images, but when the founders formed 5X5 they had cell tower audits on their minds.

Back in 2012 when drones first began to be discussed in relation to commercial asset inspections, Eyal Stein, cofounder and CTO of 5X5, did a proof of concept on inspecting cell towers with drones.

“One of the findings that came out of that work was you get lots and lots of pretty pictures when you are inspecting with a drone but not a lot of actionable information,” said Anne Zink, cofounder and CEO of 5X5. “We asked how we can create an application that allows them to essentially operate in a reverse-CAD 3D environment. We take the real world and put it into a CAD environment. We then give you all sorts of tools, so you can manually and automatically extract data.”

After two years of development, 5X5 proved its model-scaling algorithms, which are necessary for the data to be accurate, and filed for the requisite patents. In 2016, the company did proofs of concept with the major tower owners, and in 2017, it launched its reverse-CAD application and validated it in the field. The validation process involved tower owners hiding items on the structure that 5X5 had to find and then measure within 1/32ndof an inch.

“Our patent-pending algorithms are what deliver the accuracy that the industry is demanding. Depending on the use case, we collect both video and still photography and feed the data into our 3D model in the reverse CAD environment,” Zink said. “Accuracy depends on the camera and the flight plan and other things, but in terms of getting to an extreme engineering intensive use case like mount mapping, we were able to prove that you can use a drone for that.”

5X5 is not a drone operator. It will provide its tower auditing engine as a software as a service to tower companies, carriers and others. Operators will fly the drones and upload or ship the data to 5X5, which feeds the data into its computers to create the end result for the customer.

“This past year we have been looking for the best UAS platforms that can operate in the challenging RF environment and building partnerships with a variety of UAS drone operators,” Zink said.

Drones in the Tower Space

Zink, who has years of experience as a consultant providing go-to-market strategies for carriers, did her market research asking tower owners about the challenges they face operating towers and what data drones could provide to solve the various problems. The answers depended on which personnel she asked the question.

“A number of different personas that operate with towers and each have different needs,” Zink said. Engineers want to do mount mapping. Sales teams that want to know how much room is left on the tower. Financial personnel want to know if the equipment on the tower matches what the inventory that they are billing the customers. And there are the people that are doing the pre- and post-construction audits. It depends on who you are talking to what the use case is.”

5X5 is currently working with several tower owners. In fact it is a preferred vendor of Crown Castle International, having done a proof of concept for them back in 2016. It is also in conversations with multiple carriers and expects to begin work for them late this quarter or first quarter 2019.

Beyond Towers

SoftBank’s investment in 5X5 guarantees that the firms reach will go well beyond the United States’ border and beyond telecom.

“SoftBank is our ideal partner. The company has a long-term vision for drone powered asset inspections that will allow 5×5 to accelerate development and deployment of innovation to ensure the long-term conservation of critical infrastructure,” Zink said.

In Japan, social infrastructure, including bridges, harbors, dams, power plants and steel towers, is more than 50 years old. With the shortage of maintenance and inspection personnel due to declining birthrate and aging of population, strategic measures need to be put in place to manage and maintain equipment over long periods of time.

Flying COWs Provide Coverage in Emergency

By Erum Mithani

Late in September, we became the first company to provide commercial, drone-based connectivity in the continental United States for our customers and first responders after a major storm [Hurricane Florence].  Our Flying COW (Cell on Wings) supported recovery efforts through the weekend in the Wilmington, North Carolina area.

The Flying COW operated at about 150 feet above the ground and provided wireless connectivity while our teams worked to repair and restore areas of our network damaged by the storm. The Flying COW can extend coverage farther than other temporary cell sites and is ideal for providing coverage in remote areas.

Following our first commercial Flying COW deployment last year in Puerto Rico, we continue to turn to innovative solutions to connect our customers affected by natural disasters. This year we deployed our newest model, with expanded capabilities such as extended flight time supporting 24-hour operations. This version is also easier to fly, easier to transport and is highly flexible, so it can quickly be reconfigured with different equipment, motors and propellers for specific uses. Both our helicopter drone and our newest model can operate during inclement weather, including rain.

Drone deployments like this also give us real-world experience that can be applied to the FirstNet program. This will enable us to bring even more innovative technologies to first responders to help them stay safe and achieve their lifesaving missions.

In addition to our Flying COW, we recently deployed drones to assist in damage assessment and recovery in parts of North Carolina.

Today, our network is nearly fully restored in areas across the Southeast affected by Hurricane Florence. This is just one more way we are committed to keeping our customers connected when they need it most.

Erum Mithani is Public Relations Consultant, Corporate Communications, ATO

NATE Hosts UAS Event at Crown Castle Tower Site

By J. Sharpe Smith, Senior Editor

The inaugural NATE Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Operations “Field Day Showcase” was held this week at a Crown Castle tower site located in Gainesville, Virginia, near Washington, D.C., educating representatives of federal government agencies, industry and media with drone flight demonstrations.

Additionally, UAS (or drone) and aviation subject matter experts discussed the impact that drones are having on the wireless industry and how the regulatory environment can be improved to facilitate the growth of drown use in the future.

“We wanted to bring people together to showcase the potential of drones as talk about the regulatory challenges that still may exist,” said Todd Schlekeway, NATE CEO. “We need to get drones to scale in our industry. As the regulatory environment gets better, on the heels of the FAA reauthorization and the training gets better, drones will continue to scale in our industry.”

ETAK Systems; Talon Aerolytics; Ehresmann Engineering; and B+T Group, conducted the demonstrations that showed applications and use cases for drones from the perspectives of wireless carriers, vertical realtors, contractors and technicians in real time directly from the tower-site.

“The FAA plays a major role in the increased use of drones through regulation and the ease at which waivers are available,” Schlekeway said. “But industry also plays a major role through its vetting processes to clear companies to fly drones at their sites.”

The idea for the Field Day Showcase was formed at the NATE UAS Summit in Detroit last August as an opportunity to educate government on the challenges of flying drones next to towers and pilot training that is needed.

“The timing of this UAS Showcase event could not have been better given the fact that it was held in the immediate aftermath of the passing of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 legislation,” stated NATE UAS Committee Chairman Jimmy Miller. “The showcase enabled influential stakeholders from both the public and private sectors the platform to witness first-hand the power of the drone and facilitate discussions that will ultimately help get commercial UAS operations to scale in our diverse industry.”

NATE Lobbies Congress, FCC

The Field Day Showcase was one day out of a busy week for NATE as it paid visits to Congress, including representatives of the Senate Commerce Committee, the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the House Aviation Subcommittee, the House Natural Resources Committee on Federal Lands.

“Our topics of discussion include workforce development and the need for more workers; how private industry and public entities can form partnerships, safety is always a major component,” Schlekeway said. “Streamlining deployment is always a big part of our agenda, because it speeds work to our members. Spectrum access for the carriers also gives our companies work.”

Accompanying Schlekeway on the Hill visits include Jim Goldwater, NATE; Jim Tracy, Legacy Telecommunications; Jimmy Miller, MillerCo; John Paul Jones, Tower & Turbine Technologies; and Shama Ray, Above All Tower Climbing.