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Uncertain Case for ADS-B In Small Drone Traffic Management

What the heck is ADS-B and why should I care?

I asked myself that question a year-and-a-half ago, because I kept seeing the term ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast) come up in discussions and articles on unmanned aircraft traffic management (UTM).

You may have seen it yourself in the UTM solutions proposed by Amazon, Google, PrecisionHawk, and NASA, with NASA trying to coordinate it all.  They all know that someday unmanned vehicles will share airspace at low altitudes with general aviation equipment such as airplanes, helicopters, and gliders. Agreeing on a safe and efficient system that will manage both manned and unmanned traffic is a vital concern for the FAA, NASA, private companies, and academic users.

NASA’s UTM Fact Sheet summarizes the concern that there is currently no infrastructure system in place for UAS flight:

“A UAS traffic management (UTM) system for low-altitude airspace is needed, much like today’s surface vehicles that operate within a system consisting of roads, lanes, stop signs, rules, and lights, regardless of whether the vehicle is automated or driven by a human… Civilian use of UAS has many growing applications: product delivery, surveillance security, agriculture, film industry, mapping and planning, real estate, and search and rescue.”

This was never envisioned when the FAA conceived the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) for manned aviation, which is due for implementation across the U.S. in stages between 2012 and 2025 and proposes to transform America’s ground-based air traffic control system to a satellite-based one. So, here we are looking for an infrastructure solution to low-altitude flight management, and the mistake may be that we are trying to solve it with an “all-altitude” flight management solution.

Regardless of the origin, all of these system proposals all have one thing in common – ADS-B.   This technology is the key element for the system ‘tracking’ and reporting a drone’s position to other aircraft.

But is it right for all small UAS operating in Class G airspace?

With that question in mind, we conducted an in-depth research study and have just released it: ADS-B and Its Use for Small Drone Traffic Management.

The study is both qualitative and quantitative. The qualitative portion includes information gleaned from academic sources as well business sources — including interviews with aircraft avionic vendors working on ADS-B solutions for all size UAS. Data collected for the quantitative portion study comes from a survey we conducted over the web in August 2015.

The study gives six key insights and seven recommendations. For example, it finds ADS-B is a complex topic that includes a myriad of acronyms (such as “ADS-B” itself), frequencies, and technical concepts. These important details need to be well understood in order to be discussed and adapted.  It also finds the small UAS community does not fully understand the issues of ADS-B “Out” and seems to know very little about how ADS-B “In” works. This insight is supported from the statistics we gathered in our survey.

We also gathered statistics about perceptions of current ADS-B transponders.  Most survey respondents felt current ADS-B units are too expensive, too big, and too heavy – and for the most part, they are right.  Over half had a concern about power consumption – an important issue for small drones since most don’t have a lot of power reserve. To be fair some avionics vendors do have or are working on cheaper, smaller, lightweight units specifically for the small drone market.  They’re also working to solve the power consumption issue.  These vendors are listed in the report.

The study:

  • determines the practicability of using ADS-B for use in small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) from the perspective of owners and operators
  • analyzes if ADS-B is the right solution for small drones operating in low-altitude airspace
  • identifies ten major issues with current ADS-B technology that become even more concerning once you start putting transponders on a small drone flying at a low altitude
  • informs about recent innovations, technical limitations, and integration attempts
  • evaluates how well commercial drone service providers and operators understand the issues of ADS-B
  • calls out the traffic management issues that need to be addressed if ADS-B is used and integrated with other alternative technologies

The report is a great primer for those who want to understand the technology and what impact it might have on the commercial drone industry.  It provides fresh information for industry veterans, entrepreneurs and investors, veteran avionics vendors, and drone manufacturers of all kinds. The full text of the report is 37 pages and contains the most salient industry statistics illustrated by 18 figures.

You can find out more about the report and how to get it here.

If you have questions about what’s in the report or would like to comment on it after reading it write me colin@droneanalyst.com.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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Five Skills You Need to Succeed in the Commercial Drone Market

These days it seems just about anyone can get an FAA Section 333 Exemption that allows them to legally use small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) for commercial purposes in the U.S.  As of October 20, 2015, almost 71% of all Section 333 grants have gone to firms claiming that their primary operation/mission is Film/Photo/Video (and most claim multiple uses).  This includes companies that are using drones for movies, as well as for art and real estate, among other things. Inspection and Monitoring has seen the second highest issuance rate, at 31%, while Mapping and Surveying for land and commercial construction, rounds out the top three at 20%.

Looking further into the data, AUVSI reports that at least 84% — and perhaps as many as 94.5%– of all approved companies are small businesses. While we don’t agree with their astronomical forecast (see our write-up here), we concur with this analysis.

But here’s the catch.  With the bar so low for starting a commercial drone service, what’s the guarantee these businesses will succeed? According to Bloomberg, eight out of 10 entrepreneurs who start businesses fail within the first 18 months. A whopping 80% crash and burn. So given the risk, it makes sense to assess which markets and use cases provide the best chance of success, the skills you’ll need, and the value-add services you should be offering those markets.

Here are five services we think you should consider offering as part of your commercial drone business:

  1. $ – Video
  2. $$ – Mapping
  3. $$$ – Photogrammetry
  4. $$$$ – LiDAR
  5. ??? – Spectral imaging

I’ve put dollar signs next to each service and listed them in progression to represent both the skill and value each has for potential customers. Notice I’ve got question marks there by spectral imaging.  That’s because the jury is still out on whether there is a solid ROI on this service vs. that provided by manned aircraft for precision agriculture.  Precision agriculture often gets touted as the #1 place where “drones will transform the world” but the hard reality is this is a specialized application and a very complex market.  (I have written about this extensively and you can find some very important details in a post I wrote more than a year ago called Film or Farm: Which is Largest Drone Market – Part 2?)

Skill 1 – Video

Now some of you may be wondering why I included video on my list.  We often see drone video footage on YouTube and think it’s cool. But the hard fact is commercial buyers of drone video services have a much higher standard.  So you will, too, if you want to make money in the Film/Photo/Video market.

By now you know shooting good drone video starts with selecting the right drone, the right camera, with the right lens, mounted on the right gimbal.  It’s not a secret any drone enthusiast can go out and buy a DJI Phantom Vision 3 for about $1,200 and shoot 4K video. But just because you can fly it and press the ‘record’ button does not make you a professional aerial videographer.  There is much more to it than that. For one, shooting good video requires you to be skilled in the basics of:

  • Shots (FOV, framing, perspective)
  • Moves (pan, tilt, truck, dolly, etc.)
  • Technique (zoom, action, follow, etc.)

For another, there is timeline editing.  What are you going to do with all that footage?  Hand it to the customer raw?  You could, but it’s better to have it edited or least know how it’s done so you can offer assistance or more services.  For that, you will need to be skilled at:

  • Storytelling / sequencing
  • Cuts
  • Transitions
  • Graphics
  • Lighting
  • Color grading

These aren’t all the things you need to know but if you don’t know these I suggest you get some basic film-school training and offer a better service than the kid next door with a quadcopter and a GoPro.

Skill 2 – Mapping

In researching drones and aerial photography and mapping, you might find yourself coming across new terms. One of the basic ones you should know is “orthomosaic photo” or “orthophotos.”  Orthophotos (aka ‘orthos’) are basically photos that have been stitched together to make a larger one and then corrected.  The technique is not unique to drones.  Orthomosaics have been created by aerial photographers in manned aircraft for years and used by lots of industries.

The point here is if you are not familiar with the techniques and software to create orthos, then I recommend you acquaint yourself with it because it is a valuable service for which customers in the Mapping / Surveying market will pay handsomely. There are even drone apps that automate the whole process like DroneDeploy and Pix4D.

Skill 3 – Photogrammetry

Photogrammetry is a technique which uses photography to measure the environment. This is achieved through overlapping imagery; where the same site can be seen from two perspectives, it is possible to calculate measurements. Again, this technique is not unique to drone imagery, but there is some good news here.  Off-the-shelf software, like Agisoft PhotoScan and SimActive, is plentiful and fairly easy to learn.

The hard part is providing your customer with valuable measurement information.  And the harder part is competing with firms that have been offering this service for years now using ground-based systems combined with aircraft.  For this, you will need some specialized skills and will need to be certified so that you are recognized. One way to get certification is through the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS).

An ASPRS Certified Photogrammetrist is a professional who uses photogrammetric technology to extract measurements and make maps and interpret data from images. The Photogrammetrist is responsible for all phases of mapping and other mensuration requirements, which include planning and supervising survey activities for control, specifying photography or other imagery requirements, managing projects for mapping or other mensuration requirements and interpretation. You can find more information on their programs here.

Skill 4 – LiDAR

LiDAR drones are fairly new as the units have become smaller and lightweight.  But LiDAR is not new to surveyors and engineers.  They’ve been using ground-based and airborne LiDAR scanning units for years.

The good news is LiDAR drones are great for scanning small areas like building sites and getting in hard-to-reach areas like under bridges.  In this way they provide a significant cost advantage over aircraft or helicopters with LiDAR units and have the greatest margin potential as a service for the Inspection / Monitoring market.

You can get trained and become a Certified LiDAR Technologist (CLT) through ASPRS.  A CLT is technician who performs routine LiDAR collection support and first-level data processing integrating established plans and procedures.  Find information on that here.

Skill 5 – Spectral Imaging

I put this here last because, as I mention earlier, it’s not clear whether drones provide a significant cost savings to the buyer vs. the same service provided by manned aircraft for the Precision Agriculture market.  There are ROI studies being done now, but most people who provide this service will tell you that farmers aren’t willing to pay much for this service.  Why spend $4 to $5 per acre for you to fly a drone overhead and deliver a normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) map unless there is a clear return on that investment?  Some will – like growers of high-margin crops like fruits and nuts – but most won’t. Again, this is a competitive market that demands a lot of knowledge about precision agriculture and remote sensing techniques.

I would to hear your thoughts on these skills.  Send me your comments or write us colin@droneanalyst.com.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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New Survey on ADS-B Tracking for Small Drones

We have launched a new 10-question research survey on unmanned traffic management technology to get your opinions about ADS-B solutions for small drones.  You can take the brief survey here:  https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/DBRH89H

Here’s the background: The technology for tracking small unmanned aircraft system (UAS) has advanced rapidly in the past few years.  New and disparate solutions all claim great promise.  Most of these solutions are based on the use of automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS–B), a cooperative surveillance technology in which an aircraft determines its position via satellite navigation and periodically broadcasts it, enabling it to be tracked by ground control station. ADS-B signals can also be received by other aircraft to provide situational awareness and allow self-separation.

While ADS-B is a cornerstone of next-gen air traffic modernization and integral to NASA’s Unmanned Aerial Systems Traffic Management (UTM) plan, some civil aviation groups like the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) say the high cost of the necessary avionics and the lack of direct benefits are the two greatest barriers to adoption.

This research invites a discussion about the role ADS-B plays in integrating civil UAS with the National Airspace System and its effect on commercial use of UAS.  It seeks to determine if ADS-B is the right solution for small UAS operating in low altitude class G airspace.

The resulting research study will answer the following key questions:

  1. What is ADS-B, where is it mandatory, and what are the adoption rates for manned aircraft?
  2. What new solutions or solutions under development do and do not incorporate ADS-B as part of their technology for UAS sense and avoid?
  3. What are the advantages and disadvantages of ADS-B for commercial use of small UAS in U.S. Class G airspace?

Image credit: Boeing AERO

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5 Tips on Finding a Good Drone Attorney

By Jonathan Rupprecht, Esq. for Drone Analyst

In response to the rapidly growing drone industry, there are now many attorneys and law firms that are seeing an opportunity to make money and are offering drone legal services as a part of their regular practice areas.  Although many of these attorneys and/or firms may have experience in their regular and specific legal fields, they most likely are just trying to get into this new legal field area (“get their feet wet”) by offering a new drone practice group with drone legal services. How can you find an experienced drone attorney that will best serve your drone legal needs as opposed to an attorney who is just trying to dabble in the drone area? Here are five tips to find an attorney to best help with your needs:

1. Find out how many 333 petitions the attorney has filed.

Many attorneys are starting to come into this new legal field. Some of those attorneys have no aviation law knowledge or section 333 experience. If they don’t have any experience, this could cause some problems.  One example is where an inexperienced attorney might charge you more for a petition so they can learn how to do it or to get experience. Another example is that an inexperienced attorney might not be able to rapidly file your 333 petition which means your wait is longer until you can commercially operate.

2. Find out how many of the attorney’s clients are commercially operating now after they received their 333 petition.

This is helpful because it tells you that the attorney has taken a client all the way through the 333 process and the drone registration process. Also, ask for the names of their previous clients who have been approved and are commercially operating. Contact those clients and ask them for their opinion of the attorney and whether they would recommend that attorney.

Another benefit of using an attorney who has clients who are commercially operating is that the attorney is familiar with the “real world” problems commercial operators face, such as the 24-hour NOTAM problem, the 500ft bubble from non-participants, flying within 5 nautical miles of an airport, or flying under the Class C or Class B shelf.

Are there any benefits to using an attorney new to the area? A new attorney might perform exceptional services so that they can get their feet wet and make a name for themselves in the industry. If they are desperate to get experience, you might get a great deal for an exemption. Also, some attorneys new to drone law are very skilled in other areas of the law which you might need help with such as business or tax law.

3. You should find out what the costs will be.

The fees of different law firms range all over the place. The general range of prices I’ve heard of is between $2,500 and $12,000 per petition. Larger law firms sometimes charge more than smaller law firms. Partners charge more than associates. Check out the location where the law firm is located because law firms in fancy buildings have higher overheads costs than firms in more modest buildings. You, not them, are paying the rent for the location.

If they provide you a cost estimate, ask them to break the hours down and also ask them about what they used to arrive at the estimated number of hours. It is a good idea here to get a fixed cost and not have the attorney bill you at an hourly rate which could turn into a black hole for your money. That being said, if you are asking for something that has never been done before, or is a really complex and difficult situation, you are most likely only going to have the option of the attorney billing you hourly.

If the cost is out of your immediate price range, ask them to split the payments up so you don’t have one lump sum. You could maybe negotiate the contract so that 1/3 of the cost is up front, 1/3 is before submission, and 1/3 is upon the petition being completed. You could also ask for a money-back guarantee.

4. Ask who is developing the manuals?

The FAA looks at the manuals you submit for the aircraft and operations to determine if there is an equivalent level of safety as the regulations. Are you going to create the manuals or is the attorney? Some attorneys do not do manuals. This is understandable because they did not go to manual school but law school. Does the attorney have a referral source who can do manuals for you in case you do not have the knowledge to do them? What are those costs?

Also, the FAA is requiring that petitioners asking for closed-set TV/movie filming operations will be required to submit to the FAA a Motion Picture and TV Operating Manual (MPTOM). Does your attorney even know what an MPTOM is or where to get one? Your attorney should explain the benefits of having closed-set TV/movie operations on your exemption and also define what “non-participant” means.

5. Do they have an aviation background?

Finding a good attorney in the area of drone law is not just about getting the 333 petition filed for the lowest price but is also about complying with the federal aviation regulations. A good attorney needs to understand your long-term goals of actually operating under the regulations. Your attorney needs to see the potential problems with your proposed commercial operations and help you decide whether to change your business operations/model or scrap the idea altogether. In one of the Abbot and Costello movies, Costello was asked, “Was your business legal?” His response was, “Better than that. It was profitable!” A good drone attorney can help you be legal AND profitable because they know the aviation sector and how to navigate the regulations.

Another problem with using an attorney that does not know aviation law is that they will most likely not be able to rapidly answer the questions YOU need answered so that you can make money. The attorney will have to do research to give you an answer because they are unfamiliar with the regulations or restrictions. You want an attorney who you can call or text who can rapidly give you answers regarding commercially operating under your exemption. Who better to do that than the individual who also filed your petition and helped you in determining the most economically feasible area?

It is best to do your research before hiring a drone attorney. Hopefully these tips should save you time and money when searching for the right attorney who can help serve your specific drone legal needs.

If you have questions about this or the commercial drone market comment below or write us info@droneanalyst.com.

 

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New Commercial Drones Report: Current State of the U.S. Industry

I just release a new research report.  It details the state of the commercial drone industry in the U.S. as of the end of June 2015.  It looks at recent innovations, business applications, key ecosystem companies, and market forecasts. It analyzes the business impact and market opportunities that proposed Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) rules have on unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) manufacturers, distributors, service providers, and investors.  The report is a great primer for those who want to take advantage of the coming boom in this potentially lucrative industry.  It provides fresh information for industry veterans, entrepreneurs and investors, career changers/advancers, and corporate personnel in all industries. The full text of the report contains the most salient industry statistics illustrated by 12 figures and four tables.

Included in the report are the following:

  • A primer on commercial drones that discusses common terminology and the distinctive nature of commercial drones as aircraft systems and Internet of Things devices.
  • An outline of the growing number of commercial applications for drones, with categorization into major market segments for easier consumption and further analysis. We discuss the growing interest in commercial drones, what forecasters say about future demand, and what investors are banking on.
  • An overview of the industry’s flourishing ecosystem of businesses that support commercial drone activity. We present a few of the most prominent firms and companies that provide legal services, insurance, flight readiness applications, and training.
  • A detailed discussion of the fluid state of FAA restrictions on commercial UAS operations in the U.S – including the FAA’s proposed rules for small UAS. We also discuss the growing complexity of state and local issues, the current state of private sentiment and legal concerns, and the impact of proposed FAA rules. It shows that some markets are winners, but some are bigger winners than others. We report on the important details and determine the success factors in each market.
  • Statistics on commercial drone use. We compare the number of drone operators by country, the manufacturers who have the most aircraft in U.S. commercial operations, and which market segments are shaping up to be the biggest.

In the final section of the report you’ll get a glimpse of the future.  I present a list of several firms in Silicon Valley and across the U.S. that either have, are incubating, or are working on innovations that will solve the complex problems of UAS integration into the national airspace.

The report is available for purchase here.

If you have questions about what’s in the report or would like to comment on it after reading it write me colin@droneanalyst.com.

Image credit: Shutterstock

 

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