I still wonder if drones will get involved in the relief and recovery efforts like they did for Harvey. My bet is yes. Harvey was a significant turning point for the drone industry.
Last week, there was an attack on Venezuelan President Maduro. While any attack on a political leader is more than newsworthy, this attack is particularly newsworthy for the drone industry. This attack was allegedly carried out by 2 drones packed with C-4 explosives.
These reports have many members of the drone industry on high alert and with good reason. I’m going to build the watch here with a brief history lesson. Prior to August of 2016, the requirements for commercial drone operations limited the industry so much so that it was hard to call it an industry. Commercial drone operation was basically a side-hustle for a few aerial imaging companies. Why? In order to get a Section-333 Exemption (license to operate commercially), you had to have a part 61 license (license to fly real, big aircraft) and the FAA had to accept your petition. The “accept your petition” part is why there wasn’t really an industry. Between May of 2014 when Section 333 was implemented and late April 2015, only 250 out of 1000 petitions were accepted.
Now let’s fast forward to August of 2016. Part 107 is launched as the new rules for commercial sUAS operations. This finally gave people a concrete set of regulations allowing for commercial drone operation, and it opened the door for this side-hustle to become a full-time gig. How open was this door? By the end of 2016, 20,362 part 107 certificates had been issued. I would argue that constitutes as the start of an industry. We started to see some the nation’s biggest companies using drones for all kinds of purposes. Telecom and utility companies were using drones for infrastructure inspections. Law enforcement and other public safety groups were using them for search and rescue, disaster relief, and training. Hollywood was using more drones than ever to shoot movies. Drones were starting to become an integral part of many companies’ day-to-day operations.
The demand for qualified drone service providers was growing, and the call was being answered. The FAA saw that people were following the rules and regulations and drones were being operated safely. This allowed for more waivers to these rules to be accepted, and it opened the door for programs like LAANC that make obtaining authorizations much faster for the operators. This, in my opinion, only fuels growth in an industry that is so new.
That’s the end of the history lesson. So, why is the drone industry worried by the recent events in Venezuela? The answer can be summed up in one simple word: Regulation. The industry has made so many strides in easing regulation, making it easier and faster to operate unmanned systems in more and more areas and in more and more ways. With every bit of bad news involving drones, it seems like the grip of those regulations is going to start getting tighter and tighter again. And this is a big bit of bad news. This is first time the headline “Drone Attack” isn’t referring to something the military did, but rather what a civilian did. The drone industry is so new that people are still wary of it. This makes people a little jumpy, which in turn makes them faster to call for tighter regulation after something bad hits the wires. New industries, no matter what they are, need help and support to get off the ground. Tougher regulations only make it harder, and that can cripple a young industry that so many other industries have come to rely on.
Now here is something important. The regulations are critical to the success of this industry. Rules and regulations ensure commercial drone operations are safe and controlled. The thing that makes the drone industry tick is the pilots. These are people who study the rules and regulations, take care of their equipment, study the technology, and spend their days ensuring safe and effective operation of their small, unmanned aircraft. The thing I have noticed about being a licensed drone service provider is the unique competition we face. For example, retail’s competition is the other store down the block. Our competition is the neighbor kid who got a drone for his birthday. He doesn’t have the licensing and insurance costs, maintenance costs, operations software costs, and anything else that comes with running a business, so he can go out and fly a job for pretty cheap.
That introduces the silver lining. Maybe an attack like this will help people see the importance of hiring a licensed and insured drone operator. Maybe this bit of bad news puts the good guys in the spotlight. Maybe our competition becomes a little more traditional, and I think that would be a great thing. That would mean people are starting to trust drones and understand how useful they can be.