Mar 25, 2020 Aerospace and Defense

Unmanned Systems and Life in the time of Social Distancing

By Andreea Volosincu


The commercial market for unmanned systems has been ramping up for years. Closing in on the peak of their hype cycle, commercial UAVs were estimated to have an impact of up to $46 billion on the US GDP by 2026. That is, under normal economic conditions. Enter a global situation that will change life as we know it, and tracking the commercial drone market becomes a very important conversation to have right now.

Ron Stearns, Consulting Director, Aerospace, Defense & Security, North America, Frost & Sullivan, and Alex Wilson, Director of Aerospace and Defense, Wind River, sit down with John McHale, editorial director for Military Embedded Systems, and share their thoughts on viable use cases, market players, business models, barriers to entry and market dynamics. This is the second episode of the podcast series “The Impact of Unmanned Systems” and brings into focus the systems that are now on the front lines and provide services and care to those isolated or practicing social distancing for example.

The expansion of UAVs outside of military use launched the autonomous systems industry into overdrive. In the past two decades, UAVs went from covering what was usually referred to as the triple Ds (dirty, dangerous, dull) to reliable, continuous operations that keep crops growing, packages moving and streets safe. Today, the latest stats show more than 150K registered remote pilots under Part 107, and 90+ exemptions for Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS) operations. It is an active area for regulatory guidance and there is an active discussion around what levels of safety and security these aircraft should adhere to.

As we talk about social distancing, or even isolation, the opportunities to prove the use cases from a technological standpoint, and also from a business case standpoint, grow exponentially. The social distancing situation eases up the public acceptance of these solutions and their benefits. It also creates more data that the FAA can analyze as it creates the guidelines to integrate the airspace for any kind of aircraft.

The next three to four years will be crucial. Early movers will define the business models, but will also have an important influence over air routes, Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM), and the integration of unmanned traffic into civil airspace.

Although startups expand the commercial unmanned systems activity, restrictions around certification, security, and legal operations are almost at odds with their very culture of fast innovation and reduced lifecycles. Aviation manufacturers were traditionally able to get the return on investment over the long life cycles of an aircraft. In the new UAV world, a solution to split that cost is to spread it across product lines. Having certified components on a virtualized platform allows you the flexibility to share technology, change loads and applications, without adding new LRUs that affect SWaP or needing to recertify the whole platform.

There is also a pull towards more rigorous regulations. The certification under Part 135 for instance, means more training, an official safety program, quality assurance, supply chain traceability, and all the certification evidence we are used to seeing in the case of manned operations. The latest Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) for the UAS Remote Identification (RID) proposition and the comments submitted to the FAA on this proposal show the same trend. Other studies have even showed the public’s desire to hold UASs to the same rigorous standards as manned aircraft to protect people in flight and on the ground, including airworthiness certification. This will have an effect on the market, more so as this market is in its formation stages.

That is partly due to the fact that the players and the development models differ from the military uses. The cost for unmanned DoD programs is driven by mission requirements. The commercial market is completely different in that it faces a completely different setting in term of volumes, price competitiveness for the systems overall, business model, acceptance from their end users, and access to airspace. If the last two pieces were strict deterrents, the global situation today may fast track some of these solutions.

From the quiet place of our remote offices we are seeing a silent revolution on the rise.  Listen to the stories that came before, learn about rules and technologies that can make the new commercial uses successful.  This episode is packed with stories and market insight, both from a technological and business standpoint. All you need is your headphones. If you ran out of tea, I hope you are in one of the autonomous delivery testing sites. You will get a new tea package in less than half an hour without leaving the house. This seemed like a good value prop before. Now it’s priceless.

Listen to “The Impact of Unmanned Systems”, episode 2 “Tracking the Commercial Drone Market” and stay safe.

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