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Unmanned Systems: Adapting to a Changing Future

Updated: May 12, 2020

The number of operational Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) has continued to increase over the last decade as technology matures, regulation adapts, and new case studies and business models emerge. However, establishing when, how and where the industry will evolve to become a fully integrated part of commercial and industrial ecosystems remains unclear. Whilst the use of drones in agriculture to survey, predict and inform farmers on crop planting and harvesting is maturing, the use of UAS in other applications are niche or still nascent.

The charts below highlight the wide disparity in opinion between analysts and subject matter experts on just how many drones are flying and how quickly the industry will expand. Different forecasts reflect different methodologies but also opposing views on what will trigger widespread, unhindered growth of unmanned systems. Growth is partly reliant on regulation with safety concerns paramount in planning how to integrate unmanned systems safely into airspace. Road maps differ by country and are often subject to amendments making forecasts a constantly moving picture. Beyond regulation, other factors including business models, public concerns over privacy, noise and safety, technology development and supporting 5G infrastructure will also directly or indirectly impact how the market will evolve.

Chart 1: Consumer UAS Expenditure Forecasts 2015-2026 (review of 5 analyst firms)

Chart 2: Civil & Commercial UAS Expenditure Forecasts 2015-2026 (review of 8 analyst firms)

The COVID-19 pandemic is another factor that should be considered when evaluating the future use of unmanned systems especially in use cases such as emergency management and public safety. Large, unplanned events often lead to systemic shocks and the reaction to the pandemic of government and industry has been interesting to follow, resulting in two key insights.

The first is the reaction of regulators and the speed at which new, emergency regulation related to drones has been implemented. Aviation regulation tends to be slow, formed on consensus and, due to safety concerns, conservative. However, when faced with unprecedented risks, threats or need for change regulators have moved swiftly. For example, consider the terrorist related incidents involving Richard Reid, the “Shoe Bomber”, Umar Farouk Abdulmutullab, the “Underwear Bomber”, amongst others. All of them lead to international responses that included new policies and the introduction of technology from Explosive Trace detection and shoe removal, to Water and Liquid Detection (LAG) and full body scanners.

Similarly, the threat of COVID-19 has led to swift action from government and regulatory bodies to either ease the application process, enable Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS), or change the operational boundaries. In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority, issued CAP 1915 on May 1st which documents the guidance and policy for “BVLOS Operations in Support of the COVID-19 Response – Requirements, Guidance & Policy”. Earlier the CAA also issued new guidance to police forces, allowing them to fly drones at 500m rather than 400m and, whilst emergency legislation is not new for law enforcement, it is another increase in the permitted range of drones. The UK is not alone in adapting its policy quickly to address the pandemic. The FAA has fast tracked drone applications for inspecting critical infrastructure and India has also issued regulatory changes.

The second insight has been the speed of innovation and the response of industry. New use cases have emerged ranging from spraying disinfectant to thermal readings to identify potential carriers of COVID-19. It has provided several start-up organisations with the opportunity to gain more operational experience, refine their business model and increase government and public confidence in drones. This includes delivery of testing kits and collection of samples in remote locations (Zipline in Ghana) to re-purposing unmanned system infrastructure in cities to support the logistical efforts of moving medical supplies around (H3Dynamics in Singapore).

A further development has been the increased use of drones for delivery. WING in Christiansburg, VA, has seen a substantial increase in the use of its drones, enabling a shop to home delivery service without human to human contact. This model, where permitted, is growing elsewhere.

Infrastructure and emergency operators have reacted quickly in response to the crisis, buying drones to help manage social distancing or to monitor facilities. The crisis will no doubt raise the issue of how to respond to future events and the role of drones and “drone-as-a-service” business models are more likely to feature on risk management and response planning.

Post pandemic there is also a larger question to answer around the effect of the lockdown on climate change. It will be hard for governments to ignore the ecological benefits of homeworking, less traffic in cities and the resulting growth in ecommerce. If governments are to make significant progress against climate change, then this may well be the opportunity. Prioritising 5G networks over roadbuilding to enable fast, real-time communication and data processing at the edge will provide the supporting infrastructure to enable a widespread drone network, delivering goods to homeworkers at lower life-cycle greenhouse gas emission levels than traditional methods.

The first industrial revolution offers many fine examples of disruption and perhaps the greatest was the collaborative effort of engineer James Watt and industrialist Matthew Boulton resulting in the first mass produced steam engine. It resulted in the mechanisation and automation of many new processes, transformed the British economy, and resulted in an unprecedented rise in living standards. In time COVID-19 may yet be a period of change and innovation, providing the catalyst to widespread changes in how we work, communicate, and interact with our environment. It is too early to know whether events in 2020 will lead to unbridled growth of unmanned systems but it is something that we need to consider when evaluating the future of the industry.

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