Disruptive drones

Automated mini-aircraft offer a world of commercial possibilities

Doug Chovan
11 June 2014

6 min read

Drones are widely used for everything from military reconnaissance to weather forecasting. Today, these unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are poised to revolutionize the commercial sector. With applications ranging from autonomous parcel deliveries to agricultural research, drones are leading a new era in aviation – if regulators can agree on how to ensure their safe operation.

Until recently, drones were best known as stealthy flying machines, with wing-mounted missiles or advanced surveillance designed for high-risk military missions. While such drones do exist, the potential for drone applications in the commercial sector is moving to the forefront.

Amazon’s pursuit of small, propeller-driven drones to remotely deliver lightweight parcels virtually anywhere in the world has garnered most of the public’s attention, forever altering the prevailing image of what an everyday drone might look like. With drones smaller than radio-controlled airplanes already on the market, industry experts are no longer debating the viability of such technology – they are predicting its economic impact.


Although commercial use of drones is currently prohibited in the United States, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is developing guidelines for release by the end of 2015. In late 2013, the FAA also published a plan for integrating commercial drone use into the nation’s complex aviation system.

“The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 was the first bill that included language requiring the FAA to integrate unmanned aircraft with manned aircraft into the national airspace system,” said Ben Gielow, general counsel and senior government relations manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) in Arlington, Virginia (USA). “Before then, the FAA viewed commercial use of unmanned aircraft more like a fad and wasn’t taking it too seriously.”

In the US, AUVSI, a nonprofit organization devoted to advancing unmanned systems and robotics, has worked with members of the US Congress to encourage the FAA to devote more resources to the commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems, Gielow said, primarily due to projections of the technology’s economic impact.

In 2013, AUVSI projected that the expansion of commercial drone technology could create more than 100,000 US jobs by 2025, with an overall nationwide economic impact of more than US$82 billion in the first decade of operation.

Until the FAA issues guidelines, however, drone enthusiasts will have to keep their enthusiasm in check. Because commercial use of drones without proper authorization is currently illegal, the FAA recently halted a Minnesota brewery from testing a drone to deliver beer to ice fisherman. Inspired by Amazon’s drone project, Lakemaid Beer posted an online video showing a 12-pack of beer taking flight under a six-propeller drone. Lakemaid’s President, Jack Supple, said he doesn’t plan to give up hope on his brewery’s idea and plans to be ready when the FAA gives the approval.


Drone delivering a package, portraying one of Amazon’s future delivery methods(Image © mipan / thinkstock.com)

Drone laws vary greatly from nation to nation. Canada is known for having the most complex drone laws. For example, adding a camera to a “model aircraft” immediately changes its status to “unmanned aerial vehicle,” which requires Special Flight Operations Certificates from Transport Canada, the agency that regulates Canadian airspace. Mexico’s Civil Aviation Authority, on the other hand, is much more relaxed, encouraging peaceful uses of drones. The Mexican government is also using drones for drug enforcement and university research.

In Europe, drone regulations are case-specific and require special certification under the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Promising segments for drones that would be impacted by certification include humanitarian, disaster relief and medical applications.
Deutsche Post DHL, a delivery service based in Bonn, Germany, recently conducted its first successful package delivery using a drone. The company’s “Paketkopter” flew a bit more than 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) at an altitude of about 330 feet (100 meters), flying medicine from a pharmacy and over the Rhine River to one of DHL’s offices. The drone, which can carry a payload of up to 6.6 pounds (3 kilograms), was controlled remotely by a live operator, but DHL says an autonomous, GPS-piloted drone is possible.


In Asia, China currently confines drone use to government departments or state-linked businesses. Supervision of China’s mainland airspace is divided between the People’s Liberation Army and the Civil Aviation Administration, which is responsible for anything that flies lower than 3,280 feet (1,000 meters).

Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) limits drones to work purposes, including commercial operations. Drones are not for private or recreational use. To fly a drone requires a CASA-issued controller’s license, which in turn requires aviation knowledge in line with that of a private pilot’s license. Drones in Australia are approved to operate in unpopulated areas to a height of 394 feet (120 meters); they cannot operate in controlled airspace without special permission.


Drone delivering a package, portraying one of Amazon’s future delivery methods(Image © mipan / thinkstock.com)

While Amazon’s delivery-drone concept has taken center stage, numerous practical commercial applications are in use or in testing, ranging from transporting lightweight parcels to more industry-specific applications. AUVSI predicts that one of the most promising industries for drone use is agriculture, where drone applications include creating aerial maps to optimize water and fertilizer distribution, fertilizer application and delivery of spare parts to farmers for equipment emergencies.

The first unmanned, remote-controlled helicopter for crop dusting was invented in 1987 by Yamaha Motor Company of Iwata, Japan. Today, approximately 2,400 Yamaha RMAX helicopters spray Japanese rice fields with pesticides or are used for planting, managing weeds and fertilizing.

In the heart of California’s Napa Valley wine-growing region, the University of California at Davis is testing Yamaha’s RMAX to fertilize its Oakville Station vineyard, thanks to special FAA clearance and restrictions. Such drone applications are ideal for agricultural sites where inclines are too steep for tractors, tight valleys that are unsafe for fixed-wing aircraft, or where the powerful downwash from standard helicopter blades can damage crops.

In the field of conservation, Conservation Drones, a global nonprofit group, uses drones to survey the rainforests of northern Sumatra (Indonesia) for orangutans’ nesting spots. The alternative – scientists walking with heavy equipment through the forests to document their findings – is more time-consuming, labor-intensive and costly than using drones. The images taken by the drones will help local organizations petition the government to protect national park land from developers who want to farm palm trees for oil.

Recently, both Google and Facebook have invested in drone technology to progress their mutual goal to enable Internet connectivity in underserved areas. In March 2014, Facebook acquired UK drone manufacturer Ascenta, whose aerospace engineers joined Facebook’s Connectivity Lab to focus on connectivity aircraft. A month later, Google acquired Titan Aerospace, a US startup founded in 2012 that makes high-altitude, solar-powered drones.

Drones are not limited to outdoor use, however. Qimarox, a material-handling company based in Harderwijk, the Netherlands, is studying the use of drones for picking goods off shelves and assembling them into pallet loads – inside a warehouse. The company envisions manufacturers of consumer products using drones to design a compact, flexible and scalable palletizing process.

“Because of capacity and ergonomic limitations, using people to stack goods on pallets is no longer an option for most manufacturers of fast-moving consumer goods,” said Jaco Hooijer, Qimarox’s operational manager. “Using drones, they can fully automate the palletizing process while retaining the much greater level of flexibility and scalability entailed when using people.”

US$82 billion

AUVSI projects the expansion of commercial drone technology could produce an economic impact in the USA alone of more than US$82 billion in the first decade of operation.



Despite the FAA’s recently published drone plan, experts concur that US regulators have a long way to go in developing safety regulations for the commercial use of small, unmanned aircraft. The current deadline for the FAA to produce safety regulations is August 2014, but recent testimony by the US Government Accountability Office and the US Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General indicate that deadline is unlikely to be met.

Until safety regulations are in place, commercial applications of drones are all but grounded in the US. In the meantime, the FAA is setting up six drone research and test sites from Alaska to Virginia, the first of which should be operational by July 2014.

“Initially, we see the commercial use of drones limited to visual line-of-sight in daytime operations only, so they can be landed quickly in case of emergency,” AUVSI’s Gielow said. “They’ll also be flying below the floor for general aviation, at no more than 400 feet (122 meters).” For now, that ceiling excludes Amazon’s plans. “Amazon’s parcel delivery concept not only requires a drone that operates autonomously via GPS,” Gielow said, “but one with the proper sensing technology to avoid collision with another drone or other aircraft, and that is all still very much in the research stage.”

Command-and-control considerations are among the more immediate and critical drone safety issues, with important concerns such as how line-of-sight pilots will control a drone if communication is lost. For example, will the drone continue to hover at its existing altitude, return to its take-off point, conduct a preplanned orbit, or simply land somewhere else? Experts also are focused on protecting communication links from hacking and other types of interference.


Autonomous, unmanned flying drones are just the first of many autonomous transportation concepts lined up to change everyday life.

“Technology will disrupt every facet of every job,” US venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya, founder of the Social+Capital Partnership, recently told McKinsey Global Institute. The autonomous vehicle concept – including both automobiles and drones – is a disruptive technology that could significantly impact nations’ gross domestic products, Palihapitiya believes.

“Can you imagine a fleet of small electric cars that delivers mail? A fleet of drones that drops off parcels right at your doorstep? A fleet of trucks that doesn’t cause traffic congestion? An entire fleet of vehicles that provides public transportation in a predictable way? All of these things have massive potential impacts to commerce and to mobility of individuals.” ◆

Conservation drones survey orangutans’ nesting spots: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHLSuiEt5Lw

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