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The Prosumer Drone Will Never Die

Innovations will flourish on drones that target the prosumer market for a long time

THE FACTS:

In the 1980 book, The Third Wave, futurologist Alvin Toffler coined the term “prosumer” when he predicted that the role of producers and consumers would begin to blur and merge. Today, the term is well accepted as a descriptor for camcorders, digital cameras, and similar goods. Prosumers are enthusiasts who buy products (almost always technical) that fall between professional and consumer-grade standards in quality, complexity, or functionality. Prosumer also commonly refers to those products.

Recently, a well-respected analyst mentioned that his firm thought that prosumer drones would disappear from the market in the near future. At the time, I thought this quite bizarre—because our research says exactly the opposite. I’m still shaking my head.

Earlier this year, we released “Drones in the Channel: 2016 Market Report,” a research study examining drone sales and distribution channels in North America. It’s the first in-depth study of drone sales that reveals the buying patterns of both consumers and professionals.  The report has a detailed analysis that calls into question the commonly held and often undefined prosumer term. I’ll summarize the salient points of that research and offer insights into why I think the prosumer drone is here to stay.

WHAT BUYERS SAY:

We approached our research without preconceptions about commonly held terms used to describe drone segments or tiers, such as “consumer,” “prosumer,” and “professional.” Since all drones sold—no matter what the price point—are purchased by a consumer, we believe the best way to sort out these terms was by understanding the purchaser’s intended use. Our findings are summarized in the chart image in Table 1.

TABLE 1 – Drone Price / Market Segments

Descriptor

Price Range Hobby Use Non-Hobby Use
Consumer Less than $500 73% 27%
$500 – $999 65% 35%
Prosumer $1,000 – $1,999 39% 61%
 

Professional

$2,000 – $3,999 11% 89%
$4,000 – $7,499 3% 97%
$7,500 – $34,999 0% 100%
$35,000 – $99,999 0% 100%
More than $100,000 0% 100%

Source: Skylogic Research

As you can see from the chart, “prosumer” is—as we have defined it—a very narrow category and the majority of prosumer buyers purchase their drone with either civil / commercial or public / governmental use in mind. Overall, the data we collected from the quantitative portion of this study finds 61 percent of respondents said they purchased a drone in the $1,000 to $2,000 price range explicitly for professional use.

What is even more interesting is what respondents said they paid for their most recent drone.  Figure 1 shows those results. More than half of buyers purchase drones costing between $1,000 and $4,000.  We calculate that the mid-price range is $1,400.  Readers should note that $1,400 is the approximate cost of the popular DJI Phantom 4, Yuneec Typhoon H, and the just released DJI Mavic Pro, and together these brands account for approximately 72 percent of all drones purchased in the $1,000 – $2,000 price range.

FIGURE 1 – DRONE PURCHASE PRICE POINTS

WHAT OTHER ANALYSTS MISS:

  1. The Film/Photo/Video market is—and will probably always be—the largest commercial drone market segment. Our survey data going back to 2014 and even our most recent report confirms this. Most analyst forecasts—even at the large firms like Gartner, Teal, and PwC—don’t account for the full potential of drones in that segment, nor do they incorporate any first-hand knowledge from those who’ve already operated in that segment. The photographic, film, and real estate industries have known for years that small drones are a more viable and less costly substitute for manned aerial photography. It’s also no secret that this market is already established and towers above all others both in revenue and number of existing service providers (see what I wrote about that here).
  1. All the major mission planning and mapping applications like DroneDeploy, PrecisionHawk’s DataMapper, and Skycatch Commander (and dozens more) now run with the DJI SDK. Most of these started off with applications dedicated to their own drone but soon found that most professionals want to use the simpler and more reliable DJI prosumer drones.
  1. The prosumer drone category is the only place where sales volumes and margins are strong enough for manufacturers to recoup R&D investment. As I wrote about in Sense and Avoid for Drones is No Easy Feat, you can see this trend now with obstacle avoidance technology.

BOTTOM LINE:

Prosumer drones have already created new sources of demand for aerial imaging, and this will continue in earnest. As with land-based photography and video services, the financial and technical barriers to entry are low, making it easy for businesses to begin offering drone-based services. Now that the regulatory hurdle is low with Part 107, more new entrants will create demand for this segment.

Image credit: YUNEEC

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6 Tips for Avoiding Phony Dronie Consultants and Attorneys

How to steer clear of the wrong hire for your drone business

By Jonathan Rupprecht, Esq. for Drone AnalystTM

It seems everyone is running toward the “drone” rush to make a quick buck. The way I see it is many of the consultants and attorneys assisting businesses with drone work are in reality experimenting on their clients. Many are unqualified in aviation but skilled in selling. Others have very questionable pasts that will not be mentioned in the marketing material.

Why is the drone industry attracting unqualified individuals? Some reasons:

  • newness of the industry
  • lack of organizations willing to do gate keeping at conferences
  • lack of reporters willing or knowledgeable enough to expose problems
  • few in the industry knowledgeable enough to understand the errors or seriousness of the situations
  • unwillingness to expose others because they themselves are somehow implicated

In light of these factors, you might need some help figuring out who NOT to hire. I outline six below.

1 – Google them like crazy.

Google their name. Google their company. Google everything you can about them as this will generally bring up things that might not have been mentioned in their marketing material.  You want to break down your research into two phases:

  • research articles or mentions for the period of time they started their business and going forward and
  • research articles or mentions for the period of time before they started their drone business.

Figure out when they started their company by asking them, looking up the filing date for their company name in their state’s department of corporations or looking up the whois website domain registration date. (While on that site, also write down the mailing address and name listed.)  Use that date and plug it into Google and then hit search. Then click search tools. Click anytime. Click Custom range. Now run a phase 1 and then a phase 2 search.

You additionally might want to throw in extra words to the Google search just to see if anything hits. For example, “Bob Smith liar fraud theft steal scam criminal crime arrest scandal expose court charged lawsuit.” I’ve been noticing that in phase two, all sorts of goodies pop up. They come from other industries where they have made a name for themselves and are moving into the drone industry where they don’t have a bad reputation.

2 – Find out if they had to hire someone in aviation

This is a big giveaway that they are new to the area. Following up on point one, some are from other industries and had to hire someone with an aviation background to make up for their lack of skills in the area.

In the phase 2 search, you might have noticed a lot of hits where they indicated they were in another industry. You need to figure out WHY they are no longer in that industry and now in the drone industry.

3 – Figure out their real name

I have noticed that some individuals intentionally change their first name. You might want to try variations of their first name. Another way to figure out their true name is to look up their government documents on their state’s department of corporations website. This is likely their true name. Sometimes they might have put down their true name and address on their whois domain registry. Go back and do phase 1 and 2 research with the new name.

4 – Ask around. Call their competitors and ask if they know anything

This can yield good results, and so can asking your friends what they know. There is a lot of word-of-mouth-only knowledge floating around in this industry. The reason is that some have personal knowledge but don’t want the info to go public because it will hurt them (maybe because they have a business deal with them, they didn’t do proper vetting before recommending their clients to them, etc.).

You can make these calls when you are searching for a consultant or attorney. While talking to Consultant B, you can say that you talked to Consultant A while shopping around.  See if Consultant B says anything. You have to be careful when doing this because the vibes you give off could cause you problems. If someone was asking me what I thought about another attorney, I would be thinking they are either wasting my time because they want to maybe hire the other attorney or they are a problem client and I don’t want them.

5 – Check with the state bar – especially if they claim to be an attorney

Determine how much “legal work” they are doing. Many consultants do everything under the sun, including legal work. Basically, the practice of law is applying the law to the facts at hand. The big problem with this is many consultants are committing the unlicensed practice of law, which is a crime in most states, because they are not attorneys but are applying the law to their client’s facts. They advise you on the law while they themselves break it.

It is always interesting that I have mentioned this and immediately get blowback from the consultants who claim they don’t think it is the unlicensed practice of law. Great! I have a wonderful tie breaker. Call your state bar—or better yet—their state bar, and ask them if what they are doing is the unlicensed practice of law. They aren’t doing anything wrong, right? I’m sure they won’t mind.

Most states have unlicensed practice of law committees and hotlines just for this. (Remember that this is a crime and states take it seriously.) A simple Google search for that phone number will return results. Call it and ask some questions like, “I’m a concerned consumer and I want to know if _____ is committing the unlicensed practice of law by offering a particular service they list on their website.”  This way you can get an unbiased answer on whether they are committing this crime.

Checking the state bar will sometimes show that some attorneys have been disciplined by their state bar. Sometimes it will show worse—that they are not an attorney, or they have been disbarred. I know of one situation that was relayed to me where a person was claiming to be an attorney at a drone conference, but was NOT. Let that sink in. Their attendance at a drone conference is meaningless. Conference organizers are not policemen. Furthermore, just because a website shows their advertisement doesn’t mean anything, either.

Another benefit to licensed attorneys is they have to pass background checks and maintain ethical standards according to their state bar rules; however, consultants do not have any gatekeepers doing background checks or third-party oversight to ensure ethical or legal compliance.

6 – Ask if they have insurance.

Insurance is there to protect you if they make a mistake. Some attorneys have malpractice insurance, but I have no clue how many consultants do. Checking for insurance is great way to weed out the professionals from the posers and dabblers while also making sure you are protected. See if you can get a certificate of insurance from them or call their insurance broker or insurance provider and confirm that they are insured.

Bottom line:

In conclusion, no industry will look out for you, and this applies to drones, too. You need to take care of yourself. And it’s wise to advise your friends to do their due diligence when hiring consultants or attorneys. I suggest that right after you read this, you do research on everyone you are presently in contact with or working with and send this article around to spread awareness.

Image credit – pixabay

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5 Tips for Evaluating Online Drone Data Services

Choosing the right service means choosing a trusted business partner

THE FACTS:

In early 2014, it was easy to see that drones themselves (the aircraft) would quickly become commoditized and their value would come not from what they could do but from the data they collect. In a piece titled “Drones Revolution Means Big Data Cloud Services,” I wrote:

Cloud-based services are the future. You can buy a decent image-capture drone off the shelf for about $1,200 US, but that doesn’t make you an image information specialist. The first thing you need to realize is that flying a drone and taking pictures is merely the first step in the data collection process. Images need to be corrected, calibrated, processed, stored, and evaluated. For precision agriculture and mapping, data quality and post-processing are critical to getting real value from the images.

My conclusion back then was:

This is the future of small drones, and I suspect as their use and applications increase, small and medium business niche service providers will flourish.  And as they flourish these firms will differentiate themselves based on processing speed and the salience of their insights. Certainly the use of a cloud-based in-memory computing platform to accelerate analytics, processes, and predictive capabilities will be foundational to that differentiation.

So here we are in 2016, and Part 107 pilots are flourishing, but needing to differentiate – and success will come in part from the services offered the customer.

The good news is the current wave of development and innovation in online drone data services is focused on mapping and analytic solutions that drone business service providers can use to help customers solve real world problems – problems like infrastructure decay, crop yields, stockpile inaccuracies, improper construction sequencing, mining site logistics, etc. With so many choices, it can seem hard to know which one you should use. What advantage does one have over another? Unfortunately, the answers are not simple.  A lot depends on your business model, your target market, what functions you need, and quite frankly how much you are willing to spend.  With that in mind, I’ll outline below some simple criteria to help you evaluate the various web-based mapping and imaging services for drones.

THE PLAYERS:

This lists most (but not all) major cloud-based drone data service providers that are (mostly) drone agnostic:

THE TIPS:

Know your business objectives — and ensure your provider does, too. Before signing up with a drone data mapping or imaging service provider, make sure that provider is fully committed to understanding the use case and the industry vertical you serve. Not all do. Some providers have more experience in one industry vs. another. For example, they may promote the functionality to serve mining when in fact their core functionality is based on serving agriculture.

Know who’s behind the curtain – Choosing a data service provider means you are choosing a business partner. Businesses come and go, and enterprises should ask hard questions about the portability of their data to avoid lock-in or potential loss if the business fails. So, if you are interested in the long-term viability of that partner it’s always good to know who owns it, runs it, and funded it. For some vendors, this is easy.  For others it may take some digging. For example, DataMapper is owned by PrecisionHawk.  That was easy.  But did you know FarmSolutions is owned and run by the parent company of Dronifi?

Pay attention to security, not just cost — Security and cost are also significant factors. Unfortunately, comparing vendors’ costs and security prowess isn’t always easy. In many cases, it’s simply not an apples-to-apples comparison. What’s more, tracking down information related to a provider’s costs and security strategy can be tough, but here’s what you want to know:

  • Access privileges: Service providers should be able to demonstrate they enforce adequate hiring, oversight, and access controls to enforce administrative delegation.
  • Regulatory compliance: You and your enterprises client are accountable for the data you collect — even when it’s in a cloud service. You should ensure the service provider you pick is ready and willing to undergo audits.
  • Data provenance – When selecting a provider, ask where their datacenters are located and if they can commit to specific privacy requirements – especially if you are serving agriculture. The farmer will want to know.
  • Data recovery – You must make sure your service provider has the ability to do a complete restoration in the event of a disaster. Your enterprise customer will ask.

Check the box – When people ask me what’s the best drone service my answer is always “the one that best meets your particular requirements.” If you don’t already have a list of requirements, then it’s time to get cracking.  Here’s a starter list. Note that some of these may not apply to the industry you want to serve:

  • Mosaic creation
  • Ortho-rectification
  • 3D point clouds
  • Digital elevation models – including digital surface models (DSM) and digital terrain models (DTM)
  • Crop health analysis tools (like NDVI)
  • Volume measurements
  • Plan overlays
  • Change detection
  • Manual or automatic shape identification
  • Feature extraction
  • Object recognition
  • Annotations
  • Automated reporting and task management tools
  • APIs and outputs for use in GIS, CAD and building information modeling (BIM) software.
  • Audit history

Check their speeds and feeds – How fast do you want results? How do you want to see it? Do you need a preview? Do you want to access and enjoy full functionality on a mobile app, or is a using web browser all you need? These all matter – and may matter more to your client than to you.

BOTTOM LINE:

At this time, the drone industry appears to be rich with online drone data services.  Keep in mind there are data services like Kespry and SiteScan which are cloud-based but packaged together with drones. You may want to consider them as well.  And then there are desktop and server-based data analytic software solutions like Pix4D and SimActive and Lockheed’s new Hydra Fusion Tools. These, too, may better fit your needs. Either way, you’ll want to do the same kind of evaluation because in the end they become your business partner.

Image credit: Skylogic Research

This post first appeared on DRONELIFE.com

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Sense and Avoid for Drones is No Easy Feat

But development is vibrant, and you’ll see it work first in prosumer drones

THE FACTS:

“Sense and avoid” for drones is a popular topic in the press right now, but the phrase can mean different things in different contexts and for different people. To clarify, there is a difference between solving the problem of “sense” and solving the problem of “avoid.”  Also, there is a difference between “airborne collision avoidance” (which is what most concerns the FAA) and “obstacle avoidance” (which is the problem that most manufacturers are trying to solve right now). With that in mind, this post looks at what a few manufacturers and software providers are doing to solve obstacle avoidance.

WHAT’S COOL AND WHAT’S NOT:

DJI – DJI was one of the first to release a drone that could sense and avoid obstacles. In June 2015, they announced Guidance, a combination of ultrasonic sensors and stereo cameras that allow the drone to detect objects up to 65 feet (20 meters) away and stay away from objects at a preconfigured distance. The kit was immediately available for the Matrice 100 drone development platform.  They subsequently incorporated that technology into their flagship Phantom 4 prosumer drone but not their new professional drone, the Matrice 600.

The Phantom 4 has front obstacle sensors combined with advanced computer vision and processing that allow it to react to and avoid obstacles in its path. The secret sauce for the Phantom 4’s ability to sense and avoid obstacles in real time and hover in a fixed position without a GPS signal is a set of specialized software algorithms for spatial computing and 3D depth sensing. These algorithms are coupled with an onboard Movidius vision processing unit (VPU) that gives the Phantom 4 drone the ability to sense and avoid obstacles in real time. In the “TapFly Mode” of the flight control program, the Phantom 4 obstacle sensing systems are supposed to enable you to fly a path with the drone automatically moving around objects as it flies. But you can find several real-world tests like this one that show it’s not a perfect system.

Intel – Intel is all over sense and avoid, and they accomplish it with active sensors. In 2015 at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), they gave this sneak peek at what they were working on. In January 2016, they acquired German drone manufacturer Ascending Technologies (AscTec) and dazzled CES with an on-stage demo of their Intel® RealSense™ technology integrated into an AscTec drone that showcased how it can avoid obstacles and continue to follow the subject. They recently announced their Aero Ready-to-Fly Drone, a fully functional quadcopter powered by the Intel® Aero Compute Board, equipped with Intel® RealSense™ depth and vision capabilities and running an open-source Linux operating system. It is geared for developers, researchers, and UAV enthusiasts.

It’s clear Intel understands the importance of sense and avoid technology for ready-to-fly prosumer and commercial drones, too. In June 2016, Intel announced the addition of a factory-installed Intel RealSense R200 camera and an Intel Atom processor module for Yuneec’s Typhoon H.  The module will map the Typhoon H’s surroundings in 3D, which it then uses to autonomously navigate its environment—including rerouting itself around obstacles. Yuneec’s Typhoon H camera drone already had the ability to stop itself before colliding into large objects. But now it should avoid obstacles and keep moving right around them. We’ll see if that comes true in the real world. Let’s hope it does. Otherwise Intel’s $60 million investment in Yuneec may show signs of not delivering the expected return.

Either way, Intel has hedged its bets. In July 2016, a team from Intel and Airbus demonstrated an aircraft visual inspection with a modified AscTec Falcon 8 with RealSense cameras. The demo took place during this week’s Farnborough International Airshow in England on an Airbus passenger airliner.  Additionally, in September 2016, Intel acquired DJI’s VPU vendor Movidius, which means they may have the market cornered for sense-and-avoid technology.

ParrotParrot’s S.L.A.M.dunk integrates advanced software applications based on the robotic mapping construct called “simultaneous localization and mapping,” or SLAM.  The name of Parrot’s solution is a play on the words “slam dunk,” but really it’s anything but that.  SLAM is a computational problem of constructing or updating a map of an unknown environment while simultaneously keeping track of an agent’s location within it. Parrot’s use of SLAM enables a drone to understand and map its surroundings in 3D and to localize itself in environments with multiple barriers and where GPS signals are not available. In other words, it performs obstacle avoidance. Their solution depends on active sensors. You can read more here.

NeuralaNeurala is a software solution that analyzes the images from off-the-shelf cameras to enhance drone navigation. Unlike Parrot’s solution, Nueurla technology is passive. It uses GPU-based hardware running artificial intelligence neural network software. While commercial-grade GPS can fly a drone close to its objectives, Neurala software can help it identify safe areas to travel and land. At InterDrone, Neurala announced the launch of Bots Software Development Kit. The kit will allow manufacturers to install artificial-intelligence “neural” software directly into their applications without the need for additional hardware. That said, full collision avoidance is still under development.

LeddarTech – Leddar just announced its modular Vu8. The specs make it ideal for autonomous drone use. The Vu8 is a compact solid-state LiDAR sensor that detects targets at a range of up to 705 feet (or 215 meters) and weighs 75 grams. The Vu8 is an active sensor that “could be” used for collision avoidance, navigation, and as an altimeter for drones. According to LeddarTech, the Vu8 LiDAR is “immune to ambient light” and was designed to provide “highly accurate multi-target detection over eight independent segments.” There are some cool details in this video but no real-life use on a drone demo just yet.

BOTTOM LINE:

At this time, the drone industry appears to be rich with R&D and solutions that attempt to tackle the obstacle avoidance problem. But a simple search on YouTube for successful real-world examples reveals we still have a way to go before anyone claims victory. I like what LeddarTech says:

Available drones sensing solutions for position and range measurements as well as for collision avoidance are still far from perfect: GPSs and barometers aren’t full-proof—even outdoors—and can’t be relied upon when navigating indoors. Ultrasonic altimeters have very limited range. Optical flow sensors require good lighting and textured surfaces, and camera vision are still a work in progress and tend to be processing-intensive.

As with any technology, there are always trade-offs. It’s still not clear to me who has the category-killing solution. I think that’s going to take more R&D investment. One thing is for sure—we’ll see more new sense-and-avoid product and tech announcements this year. Like with DJI, I believe it will continue to be released first in prosumer drones because that’s the only place where sales volumes and margins are strong enough to recoup the investment.

Image credit: Intel

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Can PrecisionHawk Tame Drone Traffic in the Sky?

PrecisionHawk’s LATAS delivers an innovative air traffic control system for drones, but it’s one of several that depends on the not-so-imminent success of all aircraft using ADS-B.

THE FACTS:

This past week (August 29, 2016), the FAA granted PrecisionHawk a waiver from Part 107.31’s visual line of sight (VLOS) limitations, which gives them the ability to continue their research and to train those who want to offer these extended visual line of sight (EVLOS) flights as a service. The waiver was granted based on over a year’s worth of testing under the FAA Pathfinder program. Under Pathfinder Phase 1 research, PrecisionHawk determined that the extension in range offered by EVLOS operations supports a significant expansion in the area that each drone flight, possibly up to 12 times what is achievable within line of sight.

To do this, PrecisionHawk uses their airspace display technology called LATAS, which stands for Low-Altitude Tracking and Avoidance System. LATAS is an onboard system that connects airspace management technologies, such as sense and avoid, geo-fencing, and aircraft tracking, into a service package for commercial and recreational drone operators as well as regulators and air traffic controllers. Developed to be plug and play or integrated into a drone’s circuit during manufacturing, LATAS is small (3-in by 2-in by 1-in), light (Less than 100 grams) and operational on network speeds as low as 2G. While it is not required to receive an EVLOS waiver, LATAS plays a key role in PrecisionHawk’s own operations. The LATAS web application is a free tool available on www.flylatas.com  and is intended to provide an extra layer of safety and protection operators flying under Part 107.

WHAT’S COOL AND WHAT’S NOT:

As I’ve have noted in Market Impact of the FAA Small Drone Rule, the inability to fly EVLOS restricts some high-margin operations. This new ability allows a drone to improve its economic efficiency and cover acreage which is needed for a large percentage of agriculture fields, mining operations, and large infrastructure sites.

One problem we see with this type of system is it may not be reliable in remote areas.  Even though cell network companies are working to extend their networks by partnering with rural carriers, everyone who uses cell phones knows about gaps in service that happen unexpectedly. These gaps could have much more serious consequences than a dropped call if they happen to a small drone.

Additionally, we see integration with the Harris ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast) network data as a good thing, but, as we have written about in our in-depth research study ADS-B and Its Use for Small Drone Traffic Management, the FAA’s NextGen mandate for ADS-B has inherent limitations. For one, use of ADS-B “Out” (the signal that says “here I am”) is not required in Class G airspace where most small drones fly, and two, the FAA did not mandate ADS-B “In” (the ability to see other traffic). These together are killers for its effectiveness. Aircraft (including drones) can push all the “Out” signals they want, but if other aircraft can’t receive or “see” them, then they don’t know where your aircraft is and no avionics system can overcome that.

THE COMPETITION:

PrecisionHawk is not alone in their endeavor, and we’re beginning to see others create ADS-B based solutions for drones.

For example in July 2016, DJI and uAvionix announced the release of an ADS-B collision avoidance developer kit. The uAvionix “Ping” sensors are among the smallest and lightest ADS-B-based hardware available for unmanned aircraft. Their Ping ADS-B receiver allows a drone to “see” surrounding aircraft and initiate collision avoidance maneuvers based on that information.

Sagetech has created a family of transponders ideal for the size, weight, and power requirements of unmanned systems applications. Their XP transponder data can be output via RS-232 serial communications to a wide range of compatible flight computers.

Other drone traffic management paradigms have been proposed – for example Google’s SkyBender and Amazon’s “Good, Better, Best”.  I could go on, but you get the point. The pot is beginning to boil.

BOTTOM LINE:

The current FAA plan emphasizes using small UAS in areas outside airport locations which should be geo-fenced to avoid drones interfering with large vehicle landing and take-off activities. But for all these drone traffic management plans, ADS-B technology (or ADS-B-like signal integration) is a key element for tracking and reporting a drone’s position.

NASA knows that someday unmanned vehicles will share airspace at low altitudes with general aviation equipment such as airplanes, helicopters, and gliders. That is why it created the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Traffic Management (UTM) initiative.  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.

But given the inherent limitations of ADS-B, will any of these systems work as intended?

Image credit: PrecisionHawk

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