The global consumer drone market has already raced to a valuation of around $5 billion USD and is set to at least triple in size over the next decade.
Dominated by the likes of Chinese manufacturer DJI the proliferation of consumer drones far outstripped the pace of regulatory innovation around the world and the likes of the FAA and EASA have been playing catch-up ever since.
Compulsory drone registration in the US and lately the UK seeks to address security issues seen at the likes of Gatwick Airport and concerns over amateur pilots posing a collision risk to other airspace users, but it's taken some high profile near-misses and infringements to hurry along the regulatory pace of change.
To unlock the transformative commercial potential that the next wave of drone technologies will bring regulators must stay on the front foot in licensing the Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations that unlock eg. drone delivery.
Though some might think it still the preserve of science fiction, drone delivery is very real and on its way to large scale commercial operations worldwide.
Whilst Amazon has had pilot projects testing in the US and UK for some years, graduate of Google's 'X' skunkworks 'Wing' have already had their in-house developed hybrid multicopter / fixed-wing aircraft deliver coffees in Canberra, medical prescriptions in Virginia and are rolling out in Finland. Alongside their own Universal Traffic Management (UTM) software they've struck major partnership deals with the likes of FedEx and Walgreens alongside a network of local retailers in each market.
But it's in markets like Ghana and Rwanda where the transformative potential is being fully realised - Zipline's fixed wing drone has already made over nearly 20,000 deliveries of life saving blood samples and medicines. UNICEF too has a project working to deliver vaccines in Vanuatu and has worked with Swoop Aero and Wingcopter on trial delivery trials.
OUT OF SIGHT, TOP OF MIND
The vast majority of legally conducted drone flights today limit operators to maintaining Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) with their aircraft.
Whilst this might work for most filming and construction site survey applications, the requirement to maintain line of sight means many remote and offshore survey work as well as drone delivery operations are prohibited.
Unlocking Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations will be of huge value to operators. Extended Visual Line of Sight (EVLOS) using networks of spotters is a bridge towards this goal, but both these cases require additional, detailed submissions to regulators and this is likely to always be the case.
Alongside an airtight operations manual regulators will be looking for innovative detect-and-avoid collision avoidance systems, reliable UTM software and robust practices for what happens to aircraft in the event of eg. unexpected power failures and weather events.