Commercial drones in the US open for business

FAA’s latest rules promise growth, and ergo opportunity for the software and hardware makers.

The US Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) new rules over commercial drone usage have come into force this week. The Agency predicts the relaxation of some restrictions could see a boom in the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), which means there’s a large opportunity for both makers of the drone, and companies supplying the right software.

FAA’s latest amendments to its drone rules still feature restrictions around the weight of the drone, flying at night, altitude, speed, flying near people or buildings, and remaining within line of sight. But the rules do remove some of the paperwork previously involved with the FAA’s Section 333 exemption process. The regulations require pilots to be certified in basic aviation safety, but not be a fully qualified pilot as was previously the case, so overall the process has made being a company that uses drones much easier.

As a result of the rule-change, the FAA expects 600,000 commercial drones to take to the skies over the next 12 months. Though the latest changes won’t lead to a sky filled with autonomous drones, it could help kick-start the industry into becoming the $80 billion behemoth some believe it can be.

Crucially, companies wishing to push the rules further – such as flying at night or Beyond Line of Sight [BLoS] – can apply for special exemption. PrecisionHawk - a fixed-wing drone company targeting the agriculture space - is one such company to gain a waiver, suggesting the FAA isn’t going to be a stickler for too long over the issue. A number of companies including Google, Amazon, Dominos, DHL, and Flirtey, are all exploring using UAVs for delivery; something which needs BLoS to create a scalable operation. 

While an increase in the number of commercial drones no doubts helps UAV manufacturers like DJI, Parrot, Intel, and numerous other companies, there’s also a large opportunity for the software companies. Autonomous flying, including pre-planned routes, sense-and-avoid, and fleet management are all in their early days and companies creating the right services could well find themselves well-place to benefit. Tractica Research predicts aerospace spending on AI could explode from less than $20 million today into the billions over the next ten years. Companies already providing software in the space could be well-placed to cash-in.

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