Gregory McNeal, Professor of Law and Public Policy at Pepperdine University & Co-Founder of AirMap and Tyler Finn, Public Policy Associate, AirMap
Corporate Drone Programs are Becoming a Necessity
Around the world, companies are discovering the economic and social benefits of incorporating drones into their daily operations. Chief Information Officers are best situated to establish corporate drone programs given that most drone operations involve vastly more efficient methods of data collection and will require some level of internal technology development. The proliferation of drones puts CIOs in a position to lead on data collection that will inform greater efficiencies and synergies for their businesses, bringing immediate value to corporations’ bottom lines.
Already, drones are being utilized across many industries, to inspect pipelines, electrical grids, and railroads, to spray pesticides, to transport medical devices, and even to deliver burritos and pizzas. Within the next three years, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predicts more than 400,000 commercial drones will be operating in the United States. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that the net value of labor and services from those drones will reach upwards of $100 billion in the U.S. during the same time period.
Fortunately, recent regulatory advances are opening the airspace for these new business applications of drone technology, ensuring that opportunity becomes reality. The U.S. Department of Transportation and FAA are currently implementing the UAS Integration Pilot Program, a three-year program designed by The White House to allow companies to partner with state, local, and tribal governments to conduct advanced commercial drone operations. In Switzerland and Japan, national regulators are allowing select operators to conduct package delivery by drone. Although these countries are currently among the first movers, many others including New Zealand, the Czech Republic, and Canada are following suit.
To ensure safety, multiple countries have begun investing in a new UAS Traffic Management (UTM) infrastructure, so that drones can navigate safely in low-altitude airspace. The accelerated adoption of UTM and other technologies required to ensure the safety of the airspace, combined with a reduction in regulatory uncertainty for drone operators, will ensure that businesses can responsibly implement corporate drone programs. CIOs and other business leaders have recognized that drones bring new efficiencies. Regulatory and technology advancements mean that the time to begin investing in a corporate drone program is now.
Yet, corporate drone programs need to be supported by airspace management tools. Companies operating drones for commercial missions will need intelligence about other manned and unmanned operations in their airspace, the ability to deconflict their drones from other assets, and tools that allow them to record flight data for auditing and evaluation purposes. Compliance with the regulatory regimes that governments are establishing, as well as obtaining the technology required to ensure corporate drone operations can be conducted safely, are of paramount importance to the viability of drones in the business community. CIOs understand that in order to harness the benefits of a corporate drone program, they need to obtain the special management tools for drone operations.
Tools for Access to Airspace
2Across the globe, drone operators want the ability to conduct operations within controlled airspace boundaries surrounding airports. In the United States, the FAA launched the LowAltitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) program to provide certified commercial operators with the ability to request automated authorization to fly in controlled airspace. A limited number of companies have been certified by the FAA to offer LAANC authorizations through their mobile and web-based applications. This year, the FAA is rolling out LAANC at more than 500 airports throughout the United States, opening up nearly 80 million miles of previously closedoff airspace for commercial drone operations. Corporate drone programs need access to LAANC authorization tools so that they can conduct and scale commercial operations in controlled airspace.
The LAANC program is unique in that it is the result of collaboration between the FAA and private industry. Industry insiders expect that other countries will follow the FAA’s model and design programs similar to LAANC so as to ensure commercial operators in their own countries aren’t left grounded. CIOs should lead their operational teams in developing a concept of operations for flights via LAANC in the United States that can be adapted to other countries’ programs.
Tools for Drone Operation Management
Many companies are also interested in obtaining tools for managing their drone fleets, recognizing that special management tools can ensure the safety and efficiency of their drone operations. These include commercial offthe-shelf technologies and the opportunity to develop internal software using publicly available SDKs, APIs, and other developer tools. Companies have begun purchasing UTM dashboards that allow them to see manned and unmanned operations being conducted within a specific airspace region. These dashboards provide them with the ability to monitor their commercial flights and deconflict their operations. These dashboards can also be configured to display past, present, and future flights, providing companies with the opportunity to audit flight records. Additionally, a manual authorization feature can be used to require that corporate drone operators receive approval from the company prior to takeoff.
These dashboards are often linked to drone operators though a mobile application that can be accessed from either a smartphone or tablet. Mobile application functionality includes access to all the airspace data needed to fly safely, including manned traffic alerts, regulatory overviews, and weather, as well as the ability to file flights and receive authorization from the dashboard described previously. Furthermore, through the use of APIs and SDKs, company specific airspace data and functionality can be transferred in real time to an internal corporate mobile application. The combination of the UTM dashboard, mobile application, and airspace data allows companies to craft flight approval and pre-flight check protocols to ensure that operations are conducted safely and with adequate internal review.
The Time is Now
The time is now for the development of a commercial drone program, and CIOs are uniquely situated to procure and develop the solutions required to ensure that these programs are successful and safe. CIOs should reach out to drone industry companies, including those focused on UTM, to better understand technology options and opportunities.