Some 40 years ago, a small group of researchers at Stanford Research Institute laid down the foundational principles that underpin the Internet. In agreeing to build a modular, robust, and highly-extensible end-to-end network, this small group could not have appreciated the enormous economic engine they were about to unleash.
With the recent passing of Part 107 rules, we now stand at a similar juncture. The FAA has codified the earliest rules that will help define how we capitalize on the coming explosion of unmanned aerial vehicles. The drones of tomorrow will spark new economic opportunity across a wide range of industries, but only if we adopt similar design principles to build a platform upon which anyone can provide the services necessary to safely operate drones. If we do this in a thoughtful and collaborative manner, we can build an ‘Aerial Internet’ that promises to be every bit as transformative as the digital Internet.
Proponents across a wide range of industries see scores of commercial applications for drones, such as conducting industrial inspections, taking surveys, making maps, and measuring and tracking volumes of material on the ground. The agriculture sector has moved quickly to adopt UAVs to monitor crops and livestock. Law enforcement agencies, disaster response units, and weather forecasters are also incorporating UAV technology into their toolkits. Drone photography continues to dazzle us with sweeping vistas and stunning views not possible with conventional photography. All these applications are fundamentally about moving bits – using UAVs to capture and transfer ones and zeros. This is merely the start. Beyond bits, moving atoms with UAVs represents tremendous economic and social impact. The industry is fascinated by the potential of retail drone delivery proposed by Amazon, Google, DHL, Flirtey, and others. Reaching remote communities and delivering medical supplies and vaccines is another area where drone delivery is making a real impact. Verizon observed an early demonstration of beyond line of sight delivery with the US Army at Camp Shelby earlier this year, where a drone safely and autonomously traveled 14 miles roundtrip to deliver critical medical supplies. One of Verizon’s previous Powerful Answers Award winners, Matternet, is leading the charge to revolutionize last-mile logistics through autonomous UAV delivery. When you consider that third party logistics represents more than 10% of global GDP1, you can begin to understand the significant impact commercial UAVs represent in delivery.
But before the potential of these applications can be fully realized, we must build the information and data services that will enable UAVs to be safely integrated into the National Airspace at scale. Part 107 addresses some of the key requirements around Who, What, and Where. Pilots will need to be licensed and demonstrate minimum knowledge requirements. Drones will need to be certified, registered, and properly provisioned for commercial operation. Operations must also be conducted in approved airspace. I liken this to the IETF standardizing on the low-level packet and frame formats of key Internet protocols. These are the basic unit of exchange that everyone must employ in order to participate on the network. More needs to be done, however, we still must develop the conceptual equivalent of routing and transport protocols for the Aerial Internet. Drones need their own TCP/IP stack, if you will. These protocols will provide a common operating environment that will ensure effective, safe, and scalable management of the airspace while allowing a diverse collection of innovators to create interoperable solutions and services that will drive the UAV economy. These protocols should adopt the same design principles that made the Internet so effective. Flexibility and a federated approach will allow the UAV industry to best meet evolving regulations and technical capabilities with regard to airspace management, data collection, privacy, communications, and a host of other areas.
Two federal agencies are leading the way in this space. NASA is spearheading an effort to develop an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Traffic Management (UTM) infrastructure to enable and safely manage the widespread use of drones in low-altitude airspace. Meanwhile the Federal Aviation Administration, in addition to issuing their Part 107 rules, has conducted safety trials to test how drones can operate safely beyond the line of sight of their pilots.
NASA should be credited for inviting broad groups of stakeholders to participate in UTM. It’s encouraging to see collaboration between large entities such as Google and Amazon, with five-person startups armed with new ideas and cutting edge solutions. But not all have embraced openness and interoperability. Some startups still believe they alone can build a solution for the entire UTM system.
This is a mistake. History is full of examples of technologies that failed because competing stakeholders could not agree on standards or failed to make their proprietary technology widely available. We cannot afford to ignore these lessons, nor should we discard the principles of open collaboration that made the Internet so successful. Drones will not reach their full potential unless we build an equally modular, layered, resilient, and robust end-to-end framework that is federated across groups of stakeholders.
We need to get this right – and quickly. One collision between a UAV and an airliner could cast a deep chill over the commercial drone sector. We should move swiftly and carefully to embrace the ethos of experimentation that has been the hallmark of the Internet age, while fully honoring the rich legacy of aviation safety. We must also be cognizant of privacy concerns and the optics of UAV solutions. Nobody wants to look up from their backyard and see a drone hovering over them.
The time to build a robust infrastructure is now and we cannot afford to wait. Drone technology has arrived and the pressure to unleash their commercial potential is growing by the day. Real leadership is required to move forward purposefully, collaboratively, and safely, so we can define the rules that will frame the bourgeoning UAV ecosystem.
Related Post from Verizon Ventures:
Next-Generation Farming: Silicon Valley Meets the Central Valley and Beyond
From Future to Reality: 2016 Will Be A Big Year for Drones, AI, VR, E-Sports, and Gaming
Verizon Ventures' Newest Portfolio PrecisionHawk Accelerates the Use of Drones For Commercial Applications