For the majority of us, drones or UAS-UAV (Unmanned Aerial Systems or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles as they are also called) are still either expensive toys or sophisticated military weapons. The time when we will see thousands of drones flying overhead or board a UAS air taxi might not be around the corner yet, but the rapidly increasing numbers of drones sold for commercial purposes in the last five years suggest that future might be fast approaching.

Drones provide exciting opportunities for many industries and are being increasingly used in farming operations, transportation, warehousing and infrastructure. According to recent figures released by the Federal Aviation Administration, by 2022 there will be around 450,000 unmanned aerial vehicles operating in the US, versus roughly 110,000 today.

By 2026, consultancy firm McKinsey estimates that commercial drones will have an annual impact of $ 31 billion to $ 46 billion on the country’s GDP, while the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International says commercial drones could add $82bn and 100,000 jobs to the US economy by 2025.

In the EU, according to figures released by the European Commission, civil drone technology could account for an estimated 10% of the EU aviation market within the next 10 years (about €15 billion per year) and the drone industry could create some 150,000 jobs by 2050.

While these figures are impressive and the opportunities exciting for a variety of sectors, there are still many challenges ahead, from regulations, to safety, infrastructure and people reservation about drones. McKinsey said that in a 2016 poll, only 44 per cent of respondents in the US supported their use for delivery services. And while it will take time for consumers to get used to this technology and build confidence, governments around the world are grappling with regulatory challenges, lack of infrastructure and security risks.

A growing number of incidents involving unidentified drones and concerns over terrorism and illicit activities are fuelling the growth of the counter drone market, expected to grow from $ 343 million in 2016 to nearly $ 1,570 million by 2023, according to a new research published by MarketsandMarkets.

A consortium of UK defence companies including Blighter Surveillance Systems, Chess Dynamics and Enterprise Control Systems has developed in 2015 the AUDS counter-UAS defence system, the world’s leading fully integrated military grade detect-track-identify-defeat counter drone solution. The system as an intuitive interface and can detect, track and identify and defeat a drone in approximately 15 seconds at a range of up to 10 km or six miles. “Non-kinetic electronic systems, like the AUDS  – says Mark Radford, CEO of Blighter Surveillance Systems – are estimated to grow at the highest rate (CAGR of 30.9%) during the forecast period. AUDS is positioned at the strategic end of the UAS countermeasures market for use by government agencies, the police and military to protect high value critical national infrastructure and personnel and strategically important sites/events”, Mr Radford added.

In particular, a worrying increase in the number of incidents near airports, reported by pilots, have raised questions about the risks drone can pose to aircrafts, similar, if not bigger, to that caused by a bird of the same size and weight, according to a study by the Department for Transport in the UK.

The U.K. Airprox Board (UKAB) revealed that some 92 incidents were recorded in 2017, compared with 71 during the previous 12 months and 29 in 2015.

Twenty-eight near misses in the past year were considered as posing the most serious risk of a collision and these included incidents near the London airports of Heathrow, Gatwick and London City, as well as Edinburgh, Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol.

“The issue is who buys the drones”, says Gavin Wishart, chairman of Arpas, the professional trade association for UAS in the UK. “Commercial operators have a specific set of regulations to adhere to and for airplanes, small drones and home built ones are a bit worrying. But there are measures to limit the risk, like geo-fencing which prevents drones from flying too close to an airport for example”.

From July this year a new law will be in force in the UK requiring operators of drones weighing over 250 grams to register their machine, take safety tests and respect height and airport boundary restrictions, with unlimited fines and up to 5 years jail sentence for violators. Whereas privacy is concerned, the new law will also give more power to the police to intervene on the spot if drones are used inappropriately, for example to breach people privacy.

But regulations alone will not be enough: “Legislation will not stop the malicious use of unmanned systems - says Mr Radford - Using systems like AUDS is one method by which drone legislation can be enforced”.

One of the most essential aspect to consider when looking to improve safety is training: “People need to be competent both in procedure and maintenance”, says Mr. Wishart. “Commercial drone pilots already follow CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) approved courses and assessments at National Qualified Entities. There is an initial operating standard, followed by the company training, specific to the sector the drone is used in (flying a drone for delivery for example is different than flying one for infrastructure surveying or farming). And finally, like for airline pilots, there is a requirement to practice those skills regularly”.

Currently in Europe drones lighter than 150kg fall under the jurisdiction of national authorities and therefore manufacturers and operators are subject to different design and safety requirements. Only recently the EU Parliament has reached an agreement to ensure a common level of rules and safety among the member countries.

Another main concern for regulators is the risk that drone technologies might be used for terrorist attacks. In the US the Department of Homeland security has urged Congress to approve legislation giving the federal government new powers to disable or destroy threatening drones.

The UK and the EU are pushing for mandatory geo-fencing to protect airports and other sensitive areas from drone intrusion. And while governments around the world are facing regulatory issues, developers are working on designs that will make drones not only more efficient, but safer as well.

Detect-and-avoid technologies for example, preventing drones from colliding with obstacles, are still in development. “At the moment we are still at the stage of visual line of sight for drone pilots. The next step will be flying them beyond visual line of sight, but we will need new traffic management systems”, says Mr. Wishart.

An integrated air traffic management will need to be introduced to allow drones – now flying below aircrafts because of the collision potential –, to communicate with air traffic control. And while UASs sophistication increases, so will infrastructure requirements: from charging stations to landing facilities and service centres.

Technological advances will not be the only factor to determine the pace of growth for this new technology: safety remains at the top of the agenda for regulators around the world.   

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