Commercial drone deployment faces a bottleneck — testing space

There are some 38 possible business applications for drone technology — but each needs real-world testing environments.
10 February 2020

Drones can disrupt, but safety comes first. Source: Shutterstock

Cheap to run, able to glide over traffic, and unfazed by hazardous tasks, drone technology — whether airborne, seaborne or surface — is predicted to have a massive economic impact. 

Barclays predicts the commercial aerial drone market could grow tenfold from US$4 billion in 2018 to US$40 billion in just five years’ time, resulting in efficiency cost savings of some US$100 billion. 

While tech giants, such as Google and Amazon, have flocked to the technology’s promise in the last-mile delivery space, applications are as diverse as maintenance, construction, and even oceanography

However, realizing a future of drone-powered business means overcoming regulatory hurdles. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of red tape around flying lumps of circuitry around dense population centers. 

Progress is being made — slowly. The FAA approved delivery firm UPS to operate a drone airline, with caveats, while the ISO’s approval of the world’s first drone standards was expected to stimulate rapid development. 

Passing regulations — whether local, national, public or private — means rigorous testing to ensure the technology is ready to be deployed in a real-world scenario. 

And while there is no shortage of viable applications in the works which promise to bring new possibilities to a range of industries and businesses, drone operators need the airspace to put the technology to the test in the first place. 

Robert Garbett, founder of the UK Drone Delivery Group — the country’s initiative to provide guidance on the steps required to enable accelerated commercialization of drones — said that a lack of viable test space is emerging as a barrier to the technology’s progress.

“There is a current unnecessary ‘bottleneck’ in the evolution of the drone industry and this primarily lies in the lack of controlled testing locations which can provide trial areas and safe environments to accelerate the development of drone technology, help to shape its standards, and ensure appropriate but non-constricting regulations.”

Garbett said that while the fledgling commercial drone industry is being supported by public bodies, staying ahead in the fast-moving arena will need cooperation and participation from various landowners, whether “business, local authorities, police, fire & rescue services and even members of the public.”

The wide range of future applications of commercial drones means there’s a need for a diverse spread of testing environments.

Many planned applications of drones will see them flying over busy towns and cities, where obstacles such as utility poles are commonplace and the risks posed by mechanical failure are multiplied. Testing the unmanned vehicles in the wilderness is not sufficiently rigorous before real-world deployment. 

“[…] desirable drone technology testing locations include not only large airports and aerodromes that may already be approved by the Civil Aviation Authority but also forests, remote coastal areas and ports, through to residential areas and other dense urban environments,” said Garbett.  

CB Insights list 38 possible applications for drones, ranging from agriculture, emergency response, energy, construction planning, urban planning, and advertising — all of which must be tested within their proposed context. 

“Testing will need to include everything from simple potential drone tasks such as parcel delivery, to much more complex applications such as smart motorway monitoring, law enforcement rapid response and search and rescue,” Garbett said.