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Drones In Commercial Airspace To Drive A New Industrial Revolution
FAA selection of six UAV test sites creates anticipation over local jobs and the growth of U.S. manufacturing
By Casey Nobile

Vocational opportunities

If, as the Air Line Pilots Association suggests should be the case, all drone operators are required to have the same amount of training as pilots, the growth of the drone market will create a secondary industry, offering training, advice and support to corporations who want to adopt UAVs for commercial use.

As we’ve seen with robot integrators, UAV pilots could account for thousands of those jobs in demand as the industry expands. And educating those pilots is a lucrative industry in itself. In 2011, the United States Air Force trained more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined.

Those states, like North Dakota, that already boast institutions offering a four-year degree in UAV operations or special certification programs should expect to benefit from the industry’s growth in any case, but particularly if that state also hosts a UAV cluster. A list of North American training schools can be viewed here.

The rush to build Ohio’s image as a center of drone production and testing has already led a local community college to offer certificate programs in the technical maintenance and piloting of drones.  The college created the first non-military UAS simulation center for training pilots of unmanned aircraft and it has plans to make the first National Center for UAS Training and Certification.

Effect on citizen life

The citizens of the states chosen for test sites can expect, in some regard, to be viewed as a microcosm of the nation’s future with UAVs. Although swarms of drones will not darken the skies over Ohio just yet, the FAA’s swift integration efforts understandably raises alarms about public privacy in particular.

Catherine Crump of the ACLU is speaking out against “policy by procurement” for drones. That term refers to the all-too-common practice of vendors establishing the approved uses for new technology, often even before the public knows the technology exists (think GPS tracking in cell phones).

“Military vendors are trying to craft the regulations around their products,” said Patrick Egan, a small-business consultant in the industry. “Money talks.”

That public debate will continue as drones get closer to flying in friendly skies.

Generating commercial applications

In the meantime, the FAA is technically designed to focus on securing public safety, not privacy. And, to that end, the public can expect to watch drone technology drive advancements in security and anti-collision software.

Already several advanced “sense and avoid” systems have been announced, including the U.S. Army’s Ground-Based Sense and Avoid system (GBSAA) which is in its early testing phase and the Fraunhofer Institute’s new anti-collision chip technology. Two days ago, ADTI announced a joint venture with Austria-based Aerospy to commercialize the first certified sense and avoid technology for UAVs in civilian airspace.

More such collaborations and technology “races” can be anticipated as research at the six test sites generates strange bedfellows as well as tons of data for commercial development.

Phillip Finnegan, Teal Group’s director of corporate analysis, says his company’s study has noticed the “widely varying approaches being taken by these key [UAV] companies, ranging from outright acquisitions to teaming arrangements and internal development of new UAV systems” in the race to capitalize on the growing market.

Indeed, the UAV community has been preparing itself for commercial acceptance for sometime. While military drones have been in the skies over Afghanistan, UAV hobbyists have been developing new technologies on the ground. The problem is, many manufacturers accustomed to dealing with the DoD don’t know how to market commercial applications to an increasingly suspicious public.

While AUVSI hires a media company to produce positive messaging on drones for the general public, some of the technologies that are being developed, in terms of robotics advancements, are exhibiting endless possibilities for adoption into industries the public has approved commercial robots for, such as the medical field.

For example, facial recognition software that might allow the police to locate a criminal in a crowd from miles above ground can be adapted to a personal robot that can recognize its owner’s face; Security software that prevents drone hijacking can also protect your personal computer; and the anti-collision technology being developed in compliance with the FAA’s NextGen initiative will undoubtedly make even our manned commercial air travel more safe.

As test sites are chosen and UAV tech clusters take shape around them, the U.S. will see a fundamental reshaping of the industrial environment that, according to AUVSI, could give the civil market a shot at eclipsing the defense market in terms of investment and revenue. Not to mention the fact that adoption of UAVs into commercial airspace marks another accelerated movement towards the adoption of robotics into everyday life.

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About the author

Casey Nobile is Manager of EH Publishing’s Robotics Division, including Robotics Business Review, Robotics Trends, RoboBusiness and the Robotics Marketplace at CES. She is passionate about developing connections between robotics technologies and the corporate world. Nobile has a master’s degree in Writing, Literature and Publishing from Emerson College.

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