Drone Technology: Exploring the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Industry

by Diana Drake

It has been a big week in the U.S. for the commercial world of remote-controlled aircraft – namely, drones. Drones, also called unmanned aerial vehicles, have no human pilot on board and are usually controlled on the ground by a person or a computer. They already have a strong foothold as information gatherers in the military market, and many see the commercial market for drones as a vast and promising frontier.

As of August 29, 2016, a new U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Aviation Administration rule went into effect that makes it easier to become a commercial drone operator in the U.S. Under the new regulation, businesses can fly drones up to 55 pounds in sparsely populated areas up to 400 feet above ground during daylight hours and within sight of the pilot. Until now, commercial drone operators had to get special permission to run their aircraft for everything from monitoring farm crops to inspecting utility lines. The FAA estimates that some 600,000 commercial drones could begin flying in the next year, compared to the 320,000 registered planes that carry people in the U.S.

In June, when the new rule for small, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) was announced, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said, “We are part of a new era in aviation, and the potential for unmanned aircraft will make it safer and easier to do certain jobs, gather information and deploy disaster relief. We look forward to working with the aviation community to support innovation, while maintaining our standards as the safest and most complex airspace in the world.”

On August 29, more than 3,000 people applied to take a written aviation test to become drone operators. The FAA rules move the U.S. one step further toward integrating drones into the nation’s crowded airspace, and advance the expanding UAS industry, an exciting new field of business that provides opportunities for the next generation of workers and innovators.

If you’ve never considered the economic future of drone technology, here are five fundamentals to help you explore this emerging powerhouse:

The numbers. New technologies give rise to new industries. This week’s FAA rule is expected to generate more than $82 billion for the U.S. economy and create more than 100,000 new jobs in the next 10 years.

The adopters. According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, this week’s news means that the commercial drone industry is “cleared for takeoff.” A report by the group notes that 42 types of business operations have previously requested special permission to fly drones, showing the technology’s incredible economic potential. The top in-demand drone business areas are aerial photography, real estate and aerial inspection. Industries using drones include energy, construction and agriculture. For example, drone use in farming is widespread. Bowles Farming Co., based south of San Francisco, Calif., uses drone thermal imaging to make sure its irrigation systems are working efficiently and effectively (see Related Links for the full story). Growth in other industries, especially delivering and transporting for online retail, restaurants, legal papers and medical needs, is expected to unfold in the next five years. Another popular application of drone technology? Extreme sports cinematography.

The businesses. The industry for the production and sales of UAVs is robust – and a generator of new jobs for young technologists, computer scientists and data analysts. Several companies have started up in recent years, manufacturing aircraft parts, unveiling innovations in drone technology, and designing supporting products and services. A few examples: PrecisionHawk, a UAV business founded in Raleigh, N.C., in 2010, uses drones to collect data for certain industries and then analyzes that data through specialized software tools. Skyward of Portland, Oregon, provides commercial drone software. Kespry, located in Silicon Valley and founded in 2013, designs automated drone systems for commercial use. One of the largest manufacturers of commercial UAS is SZ DJI Technology in Shenzhen, China.

The training. This summer, Indiana high school student Epiphany White attended Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory’s Outreach Summer program to explore science and engineering. Among her experiences: learning how to control a hexacopter drone. High schools and higher ed are embracing the potential of drone technology for the next generation of workers, whether they want to engineer and design them, operate them or participate in one of the industry’s many supporting roles. For instance, South High School in Anchorage, Alaska, recently started a UAS pilot program to prepare kids for jobs in the industry. According to Alaska Dispatch News, students in this year’s class will learn how to fly drones, to use a 3-D printer to make aircraft parts and practice using the aircraft for cinematic shots. Similarly, Wor Wic Community College in Maryland, has started to prepare students for careers in the UAS industry in areas like maintenance, flying, development and payloads (hauling capacity of drones). Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida is one of a small but growing group of colleges and universities offering an undergraduate degree in UAS.

The globe. The growing UAS industry is far-reaching. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), for instance, is using 3-D printing to develop drone prototypes that may someday be used to explore the surface of Mars. A little closer to home, places around the world with more airspace and less red tape than the U.S., such as Australia, are advancing the commercial use of drones. Need more convincing? In late August 2016, Flirtey, a drone delivery service, and Domino’s Pizza Enterprises announced the first commercial pizza-by-drone delivery model in Auckland, New Zealand, a country with progressive aviation regulations. Even low-tech pizza delivery may soon require some high-tech skills, and is but one industry that is sure to change during the drone revolution.

Related Links

Conversation Starters

Privacy is a big issue with the use of drones, which often take photos and gather information through remote sensing technology. FAA does not regulate how UAS gather data on people or property, but is planning to come out with more privacy regulations. Discuss drone privacy issues with a group. How might privacy be breached? What laws do you think should be in place to ensure the proper and ethical use of drones?

Build on what you have learned about the unmanned aircraft systems industry. What will the drone reality be in five years? 10 years? Will a sophisticated network of drones be buzzing around our airspace serving a number of functions? What is your vision for this industry and its technology?

The news coming out of the UAS industry related to the use of drone technology is diverse and varied — everything from controlling water usage during a drought to delivering pizzas. Using the “Related Links” tab, read up on some of the news related to this emerging industry. Which stories capture your interest? Why? Choose one story to analyze in detail and share what you learned with a partner.

7 comments on “Drone Technology: Exploring the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Industry

  1. I think it is very neat that there are many programs for young students looking to enhance their knowledge in the field of drones. It’s incredible that there are courses available to students to show them how a drone operates and is built. I also feel it is neat that out in Alaska there are classes training kids how to operate and build drones. They are even teaching kids not only how to operate one, but how to give it use which is neat. They are showing kids how to maintenance them and use them for delivery. I would really consider taking this class if I can find the time.

    • I agree with you Jason. It is intriguing that they are giving classes to teach people everything about drones. It is very neat that drone technology is such a successful business in today’s world. I feel that this industry will continue to grow. I think if I could go to one of these courses and learn how to build, maintenance, and operate these drones, I would.

  2. I feel as though the topic of drones leads into a wide array of the world of technology. It opens up a student’s mind into a world in which a decade ago was just a dream. People need to know about this world because this is soon what the world is going to be. The world is opening up the doors for technology and drones have the opportunity to lead the way in not only recreational flight, but the military, and the mail service, and even the medical service.

  3. It seems everything I read is about operating the drone. I have drone footage of my waterfront listings shot by someone else. I would, of course, be using it for commercial use, is it ok? Thoughts?

  4. Everything we do today involves technology. Technology is always improving in ways that you can’t imagine. The idea of drones has been booming lately. Most people hear about these things and think it’s not going to affect them but soon drones will be a major key in today’s society. Not only will it benefit the government but it will affect the people too.

  5. We are living the future of aviation. Not so long ago, flying aircraft models were being tested, once they worked (started flying), the knowledge and the industry just didn’t stop growing. Nowadays, machines are flying without even the presence of a pilot and restaurants, drug stores, online stores, are already considering using UAS to deliver their products. I can’t stop wondering how it’s going to be like in 50 years from now.

  6. In reading this article, there is no doubt as to the economic potential behind drone technology. While the recent FAA rulings are expected to generate substantial profits and new job opportunities for the domestic economy, the promising global and humanitarian benefits are equally compelling in the growth of this industry.

    I am especially intrigued by Bowles Farming Co. using drone thermal imaging to optimize the efficiency of its irrigation systems. This application can be expanded beyond thermal imaging for irrigation to multiple facets of agricultural production that will maximize crop yield. My personal research on this subject has interested me in a company called SeeTree that utilizes drone information to optimize the productivity of citrus farms. SeeTree employs specialized cameras attached to drones that gather information about individual trees. Trees with the highest yield are analyzed to determine optimal growth conditions. These conditions are then replicated throughout the farm to maximize production and profit. With the company’s plans on diversifying its business to different types of crops, such as nut varieties, there is an enormous opportunity for expansion throughout all segments of the produce sector. Further use of drone technology can be applied to soil sampling, fertilizer distribution, and harvesting to increase agricultural efficiency.

    The World Food Programme estimates that over 795 million people struggle with hunger worldwide affecting approximately 40 million people here in the United States. As someone who has participated in food distribution in Philadelphia, I have seen the effects of hunger in my surrounding community. With the exponential increase in the world population, the hunger crisis will only get worse. In addition, the recent Coronavirus pandemic will not only affect manual labor in food production but interfere with food distribution as well. Just as the article describes Domino’s “pizza-by-drone delivery model,” drones will have a significant impact on food delivery, especially amongst the elderly, the disabled, and those with transportation limitations. Furthermore, the decreased use of standard automotive delivery systems will reduce our carbon footprint and improve atmospheric conditions. Drone technology has the potential to help solve all of these dilemmas.

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