Drones in 2016: Where Do Unmanned Aircraft Go From Here?

Belgian Federal Police flight manager Jan Verbruggen pilots a federal police drone. Francois Lenoir/Reuters

When the first airplanes were introduced into the skies the world suddenly got a lot smaller. Planes changed how quickly people got from point A to point B, and they changed infrastructure and culture. Planes created new opportunity, but they also created new rules.

Drones are now in the same territory. During a Consumer Electronics Show 2016 press conference, Brendan Schulman, vice president of policy and legal affairs at DJI, a leading Chinese drone manufacturer, said drone technology "is now viewed, by I think many people, as the greatest evolution in aviation since the jet engine if not the Wright Brothers."

With the rise in popularity of drones—an estimated one million were expected to be sold this past holiday season—policy makers, hobbyists and drone manufacturers are trying to figure out how the future of drones relates to public safety, privacy and usage.

For Raj Talluri, senior vice president of product management at Qualcomm (a mobile telecommunications company), those areas will be dictated by how drone technology advances. "I think, as with most things, as the technology gets better and you can prove it's going to be safe…I think people will get comfortable with it in time," Talluri told Newsweek.

Talluri sees the future of drones being a significant part of a connected world, part of the Internet of Things (IoT). He said Qualcomm's Snapdragon Flight, the company's new drone navigation software, makes the development and connectivity of drones better by creating more efficient, smarter devices. This, he said, will make drones safer and further their advancement.

"Before we introduced Snapdragon Flight, we were seeing that people were using a whole bunch of, almost a hodgepodge of chips, to build a drone," Talluri said. "What we thought, if we can integrate a lot of those components into this Snapdragon Flight system, it makes the drones much smaller, much lighter and the battery can be much smaller."

Snapdragon Flight's system makes flying safer by helping drones avoid hitting objects and making them go where they're intended. It calculates factors like object avoidance through the use of down facing tracking cameras, stereo cameras, motion planning, obstacle mapping and autonomous path planning.

While the technology like Snapdragon Flight makes drones smarter it's not the only advancement taking shape in the industry. How drones work is also tied to how we use them. And one of the more potentially significant uses for drones comes from Amazon Prime Air.

The service, first proposed in 2013, aims to use drones to deliver packages to customers in less than 30 minutes. While it has yet to get off the ground, Amazon says it will launch when the technology is ready (it says it's not yet) and when "we have the regulatory support needed to realize our vision."

Amazon Vice President of Global Public Policy Paul Misener said in an interview with Yahoo that the service hasn't been priced yet but the company is working on using a wide range of drones depending upon where the package is going. The drone itself, which will deliver goods weighing less than five pounds, will be different depending on if it's raining or if the destination is in a city or the country.

While not ready for the public yet, Misener said the company could launch the service outside the U.S. if the technology outpaces the regulations.

"Well, we have customers all around the world, of course. There's no reason why the United States must be first," Misener told Yahoo, but, "we hope it is."

Are Regulations Hindering Drone Development? It Depends On Who You Ask

Despite advances with GPS and obstacle avoidance technology, drone users, whether they are commercial or recreational, can't legally fly a drone beyond where they can physically see. This "beyond the visual line of sight" regulation is a huge hurdle for Amazon Prime Air and other drone technologies.

"We clearly recognize that [drones are} going to be a huge commercial benefit," Marke Gibson, the FAA's senior advisor of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) integration, said at CES. But, "how do we do this safely and what are the key components of that? It's about walking that balance between the public trust and safety and enabling innovation."

Schulman said if recent history is any indication, drone technology will continue to advance at a much faster rate than industry regulations. Commercial and technological advancements will require the FAA, manufactures and users to collaborate to make sure innovation isn't stifled, he said.

"UAS is the most fundamental change in aviation we'll see in our lifetime," Schulman said at CES drone forum.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the agency is aware of the pace of drone development and that it must meet those challenges. That doesn't mean, however, the FAA will succumb to industry pressure at the cost of public safety.

"This is not going to be a finite process, where one day we sit back and say, 'OK, we're done,'" Huerta said during a press conference at CES 2016. "Maintaining the highest levels of safety requires us to constantly evolve in our approach, whether we're talking about commercial aircraft like Boeing 747s, or unmanned quadcopters that weigh a few pounds.

"Over the past year, working with our government, industry and model aircraft community partners, we have made very significant progress on this front," Huerta continued. "And the coming year is going to be an exciting and challenging time as we continue to support existing initiatives and implement new ones while leveraging our partners' energy and creativity to identify even more integration strategies."

On December 21, the FAA began requiring drone users to register with the agency as part of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Registration Act. It states all drones weighing between 0.5 and 55 pounds have to be entered into the database. The FAA announced on January 22 that in the first 30 days of the registration system nearly 300,000 drone users have registered.

The registration, which costs $5, is for individual drone users, not each specific drone. Each user-specific number is to be written on each drone. This is an area where there seems to be positive consensus among drone stakeholders.

"They made some good moves in terms of the registering the person, not each aircraft, multiple crafts, same person." Douglas Burnet, co-founder of the Aerial Sports League, tells Newsweek.

"It's great that it's not being done at point of sale, not some mandatory thing you have to do before you purchase the device," Micah Barbato, account manager for 3D Robotics, told us. "We need to attach a human to the drone," instead of a serial number for each drone.

The registration has been contentious however, and some hobbyists argue that they don't take into account the weight of drones. There's also a debate about who should be allowed to access to the registration database.

For those racing drones, the half-pound requirement seems arbitrary.

"Most racing drones are under a pound and a pound seemed to be just an obvious place to put it," Burnett said. "The weight restrictions have made it so onerous, it's every [flying] toy."

Drones weighing more than 55 lbs cannot use typical registration systems and must use the aircraft registry process, which includes a whole host of other forms and rules to be met.

Many drone users specializing in commercial or government usage (like inspections for bridges) see the registration act and the FAA involvement as a necessary step to ensure safety of the public. Video- and photography-centric drone users don't feel the act negatively impacting them at this time (what's another $5 for a drone that cost several hundred dollars) but are generally cautious about future regulations. Many racing and other recreational drone entities see the current drone regulations as flawed and burdensome.

Adam Zylka, a technical engineer with senseFly (a Parrot-owned company focused on the development of aerial imaging drones, specifically for commercial uses) tells Newsweek the company has worked closely with state and federal DOTs across the country, highlighting its work with the Minnesota DOT.

At CES, Zylka was demoing the eXom, which is designed as an intelligent mapping and inspection drone. With a camera that rotates 180 degrees and has protected downward-facing props, he said the eXom could bump into bridges and other structures it's inspecting without damaging the device.

senseFly Business Developer Baptiste Tripard doesn't envision many more unforeseen laws from the FAA that would stymie drone makers.

"What we try to do is to be involved in the whole operation, trying to define the best framework, the best drone practices in the U.S.," Tripard said. "Since we've come from nothing to the exemption process. Today we have more than 100 people operating the devices under that new exemption."

The exemption Tripard mentioned is called a section 333. It requires drone operators seeking to use their drone for profit to apply. Each request for a 333 is granted on a case-by-case basis through the FAA and the Secretary of Transportation.

Anyone flying drones for personal use, like photography, is not required to apply for an additional permit.

Barbato was showcasing 3D Robotics' Solo, a photography- and video-based drone that uses GoPro, during the Drone Rodeo at CES. The event is designed to demo the latest technologies in the field in a real-world setting, not just inside a convention hall.

He said registering a drone shouldn't be taxing, or cause complaints. Similar to having to register your car, it's something you have to do to operate legally, he said. However, Barbato said it's important drone makers remain part of the ongoing process.

"We do and always will promote safe flying," Barbato said at CES. "We're working closely with the FAA to help them understand what regulations are necessary, well at least our humble opinion. But, we're working with them. Whatever they say we're going to do. We're not trying to go against the grain in any way."

Talluri believes the future is drones, and the sooner everyone embraces the industry the sooner they'll understand what goes into drone making and why the advances with unmanned aircraft are exciting and fun.

"I think the technology is evolving," Talluri said. "Particularly with connectivity and the significant amount of processing power at the device, you're able to do these things well…things like computer vision, obstacle avoidance, navigation, location…when you combine all things you will be able to get to that point. It's just at a stage of evolution that once you see it that [you say], 'Yeah, it works.'"

Newsweek/iDigitalTimes was unable to reach Amazon for comment on its Amazon Prime Air service.

To sign-up for the Drone Registration System, visit the FAA's official website.

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