Following now-Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg's confirmation this week, the enterprise drone sector is abuzz over what the next four years may bring in terms of drone regulation. The FAA has taken a methodical and decidedly cautious approach to enterprise drone restrictions, but over the last few months, and on the heels of substantial testing and stakeholder outreach, the agency has begun to put in place a regulatory framework to guide more robust adoption of unmanned commercial drones over populated areas.
Of course, many in the industry feel the agency can do more to encourage a sector that could be worth more than $43 billion globally over the next few years.
Which brings us back to the man known affectionately for the past few years as Mayor Pete. The 39-year-old doesn't have a track record in federal transportation regulation, but industry insiders are reading the tea leaves of his Navy Reserve experience and infrastructure oversight as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and there's reasons to be hopeful.
To find out why I reached out to Romeo Durscher, Vice President at drone software company Auterion, for insights. One of the drone industry's top executives and a highly experienced leader in aerospace and unmanned aerial systems, Durscher joined Auterion from DJI, where he held the role of Senior Director of Public Safety Integration. During Romeo's six years at DJI he built the Public Safety vertical and has become a well known and respected thought leader in the space. His opinions here are his own, but they give good context to and insight on sentiment within the sector.
GN: Why is this a critical moment to be paying attention to the regulatory environment surrounding commercial drones, and what's the top line takeaway as we head into Secretary Buttigieg's oversight of FAA?
Romeo Durscher: The next few years are absolutely critical for the United States to meet the exploding demand for drones in government and business. What the COVID pandemic has taught us is that this technology is essential for public safety. Steps have already been taken by the U.S. government to enable the national drone industry and President Biden has previously expressed support for additional investment in essential US technology. Pete Buttigieg has a proven track record of embracing autonomous vehicle technology and understanding the benefits that it can offer. As mayor he was the driving force behind initiatives to position South Bend as a testbed for drones and wireless technology. We're optimistic that, as Secretary of Transportation, he will set the tone for a positive, open environment where we can continue to expand upon the milestones achieved to date and accelerate the safe and valuable use of drones.
GN: What do you think he brings to the table in terms of experience or outlook?
Romeo Durscher: Pete Buttigieg brings a very fresh perspective. As a former intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve and former mayor, he brings a very broad understanding to the table. He understands the needs of new technologies in both defense and emergency services as well as the challenges of regulatory complexities. His desire to enforce safety standards will also help the entire UAV industry.
GN: Give us a snapshot of the FAA's recent enterprise drone rule making. What have the trends been over the last couple years, and what kinds of reactions are we seeing within the industry?
Romeo Durscher: Today drones represent the fastest-growing segment in the entire transportation sector, with over 1.7 million drone registrations in the USA and over 203,000 FAA-certified Remote Pilots.
After the implementation of Part 107 to certify remote pilots for commercial operations, progress slowed down a little. In December 2020, the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Aviation Authority announced two highly anticipated rules for advanced safety and innovation in the USA. One is the Remote ID rule, requiring drones to broadcast what is essentially an "electronic license plate." The other is the Operations Over People at Night rule, allowing for small drones to fly over people and at night under certain conditions.
The current goal of the industry to address safety, security, and privacy concerns, while also advancing opportunities for innovation and utilization of drone technology. This allows for more focused commercial drone use-cases while ensuring transparency, which continues to benefit public acceptance and support.
GN: Where is the focus likely to fall over the next four years as the U.S. seeks to adopt a sensible regulatory approach to enterprise drones?
Romeo Durscher: The Remote ID broadcasting ruling allows for future regulatory adjustments, including properly opening up the sky for not only Tactical Beyond Visual Line of Sight (TBVLOS for First Responders) but true Beyond Visual Line of Sight operations (BVLOS) for the entire commercial market. This will allow for a very new set of use-cases, from inspecting any sort of lines (power lines, gas pipelines, train tracks, etc.) to cargo delivery to emergency response operations during and after natural disasters. All of this is based on the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management (UTM) model to accommodate these operations safely and efficiently. Lessons learned from today's tests and pilot programs will support ongoing policy and technology advancements efforts to enable BVLOS operations.
GN: In your estimation, what are some potential mistakes that Secretary Buttigieg and the FAA should avoid (or remedy) going forward?
Romeo Durscher: We have an opportunity to be bold and very forward-looking. The drone industry is a relatively young industry and has already proven its value proposition many times. The Department of Transportation needs to continue working with all of the various stakeholders and include them in the discussions, test phases and policy questions. Just because a larger stakeholder has a certain requirement and need, doesn't mean it aligns with the general ideas and plans of the broader industry. It is essential that the FAA continues to bring in stakeholders from the commercial side, from within Government, but also everyday drone service providers to balance the needs properly.
This is also an opening to talk about open standards and the way they can benefit everyone, instead of just large companies pushing their proprietary solutions. Regulators need to take this opportunity to work closely with industry players and push for solutions that aren't proprietary, opening it up for everyone to participate in this space. We already see this in other adjacent software industries such as mobile phones and the cloud, where open standards and open source solutions opened things up and have proven to be scalable.
GN: What could the U.S. drone paradigm look like in four years if everything went the way you hoped?
Romeo Durscher: The entire drone industry could look very different in four to five years. As beneficial drone uses continue to make a positive impact on the perception of this technology, the return on investment will also become clearer and more tangible for operators and commercial entities.
Drones will continue to save lives, mitigate risks to many workers, including emergency response personnel, infrastructure inspectors, and construction workers. These aerial vehicles will help farmers with increased crop yields and smarter farm management; provide researchers and scientists with simpler methods to gather research data; and provide students and educators with tools to inspire and build the next needed generation of drone operators, drone engineers and data analysts.
All of this means safer workplaces, fewer on-the-job injuries or death, reduced overall costs and tax spending, improved efficiency, better research and tens of thousands of new jobs.