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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Reaching the Tipping Point of a New Revolution in Aviation

During a meeting of private industry and regulatory officials, the future of drones and the difficulties in regulating the technology was a hot topic.

The use of drones is growing not just recreationally, but also by law enforcement for bomb detection and evidence gathering and utilities for power line inspections. UPS is also testing them for urgent package delivery.

But what might a future in which the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) by countless entities, public and private, actually look like?

In a live-streamed White House event held Oct. 11 mediated by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, a group of experts sat down to discuss what it might look like and how it will be regulated.

Nearly every physical industry is examining and implementing drones. “Its transport, its mining, its construction, its agriculture,” said Helen Greiner, inventor of the Roomba, and CTO and founder of drone company CyPhy Works, adding that drones will be used across industries as a way to make operations more effective and efficient.

With an estimated market generation of $82 billion and the creation of 100,000 new jobs over the next decade, there is a pressing need to establish regulations on how the skies will be populated.

Although the U.S. Department of Transportation has recently released a framework for regulating autonomous vehicles, the future of drone regulations remains murky. The latest rules did allow for the flight of small commercial drones with some exceptions.

UAVs are required to remain in the visual line-of-sight, fly solely during daylight hours and weigh less than 50 pounds, among other rules. Many are still waiting on questions regarding jurisdiction, flights beyond the line-of-sight and the composition of future regulatory bodies.

Everyone is well aware of the arguments that the overregulation of an emerging technology can stifle growth in the U.S. while encouraging innovation on foreign soil. On the flip side, however, without any regulatory oversight, single companies can monopolize an industry or a product can be taken to market before rigorous safety tests can be completed.

Regulating these new technologies is similar to hitting a moving target. As the devices rapidly evolve, the framework established must be flexible enough to fit unexpected changes.

“For most of the 50 years of the U.S. Department of Transportation, we’ve been regulating mature transportation technologies,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. “There was an ability to be prescriptive about how you regulate that … that you don't have in some of these emerging areas.”

The key, said Foxx, is to be flexible and open.

The best way to create the much-needed regulations is for a mixture of private industry people along with public regulatory agencies. And for Eric Allison, CEO of Zee Aero, a company working on a new generation of personal aircraft, regulatory collaboration is key to balancing innovation with safety regulations.

In many ways, companies are stifled by the lack of regulations. Regulatory uncertainty, according to Allison, is perhaps the greatest risk these burgeoning tech companies are facing. Once guidelines are set, that allows for the real exploration and pushing technology to where it is going.

So what does the future of aviation look like? Short answer: It is hard to say.

We are on the cusp, "like a tipping point of a new revolution in aviation,” said Allison.”The technology that fueled the information revolution … is moving over to physical objects.”

Whether drones are then used to deliver medicines to unreachable communities or monitor crop fields for blight will depend on the next round of regulations. The uses for drones, said Greiner, are vast.

There are three primary actors to ensuring the safety of drones, according to Foxx:

  1. Industry, which is naturally incentivized to create safe products;
  2. Users, who need to be educated about the rules and what the UAVs are intended to do
  3. Regulatory agencies, which must have an ongoing conversation about rules and safety.
At some point, Foxx said, the DOT and other arms of the executive branch will need to stop regulating and leave that up to Congress. Ultimately regulators will need to keep the future in present tense.

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.