And suddenly, drones are everywhere.
As of September 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued 1,407 special permits for companies to operate commercial drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) — with about 50 new permits issued every week, pushing the total over 2,000 well before the new year.
What are drones used for? Several things, some more regulated than others.
Unmanned Aerial Realtor
Package delivery may catch public imagination, and commercial tests have already been carried out. Specifically, Amazon Prime has been carrying out tests for a while now and continues to believe that package delivery via drones is in the cards. But delivery service isn’t even the leading segment of the commercial drone industry. Currently, the biggest stakeholder is none other than real estate. The housing market accounts for some 35 percent of the first 1,000 commercial drone permits. The real estate industry is mostly using drones for marketing materials, such as sky high views of terrain around homes that are for sale.
Git Along, Little Dogies…
Agriculture also looms large, with 164 of the first 1,000 permits issued specifically for agricultural applications. It isn’t clear whether any ranchers have yet used UAVs to keep watch on their livestock. As the Shelbyville (KY) Times-Gazette reports, however, they’re watching the skies in the farm belt, a ways away from Silicon Valley.
Eye in the Sky
Drones are also set to feature on the local news, as eyes in the sky for traffic and similar news reports dependent on an aerial camera. Television and film accounted for the first six Section 333 permits issued by the FAA last year, and make up about nine percent of the total. Section 333 states the following:
By law, any aircraft operation in the national airspace requires a certificated and registered aircraft, a licensed pilot, and operational approval. Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA) (PDF) grants the Secretary of Transportation the authority to determine whether an airworthiness certificate is required for a UAS to operate safely in the National Airspace System (NAS).
The commercial drone game is taking off with such astonishing speed though, that some drones have gotten their degrees in package delivery. Most myths advise their readers of the limitations, but many of them have already been surmounted. Practically speaking, UAVs developed by such firms as Matternet have already been used to make package deliveries of medical supplies. Let’s just say Haiti and the Dominican Republic are forever grateful for certain disaster-recovery responses.
Once a Cult Classic
Drones never really figured into the great old “Tomorrowland” of monorails and personal jet packs. As recently as a couple of years ago, commercial drones were not yet on our cultural radar. Military drones made the news, but parcel delivery services via drones were only supposed to happen sometime after Elon Musk got to Mars.
Nonetheless, the basic technology is not new. Affordable private drones have been around for decades, in the form of radio-controlled (RC) model aircrafts. Like model railroading, it was a hobby that demanded a little money and a lot of time, remaining a niche interest in a community of first-gen techies.
Where There’s a Drone, There’s a Nay
Outside of the military, few really saw a practical, commercial use for drones, and the FAA regulated them accordingly, permitting drone flights only as a hobby. Hence the so-called Section 333 exemptions now required for commercial drones — 1,000+ applications for which are now backlogged at a government agency accustomed to proceeding with simple by-the-checklist deliberation.
Partly due to this regulatory process, the U.S. commercial drone industry is still the preserve of small firms, which account for 85 percent of Section 333 permits. Potential big players like Amazon are doing most of their experimentation abroad, where regulatory frameworks appear to be more favorable to drones.
A Sky Filled With Pizza? Or Lawsuits?
Ultimately, regulatory compliance looms as the biggest challenge for the commercial use of drones, perhaps more than the technical limitations such as battery life (like your smartphone, drones don’t last long without a recharge — but both stay up long enough to be useful).
Terrorist or criminal threats are an apparent safety and security challenge confronting the widespread use of drones. But this problem is dwarfed by the sheer complexity involved in, say, air-traffic control. How many small-package deliveries take place every day in San Francisco? On top of consumer deliveries ranging from prescription drugs to pizzas are the endless demands of business for office supplies, parts and tools, and a host of other small items.
It adds up to a lot of drones crisscrossing in the sky, and keeping them flying safely (handling the inevitable mishaps along the way) could require demanding compliance environment. What are drones used for? Keeping lawyers in business and regulators with jobs, for one thing.