With the global unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market expected to show double-digit growth over the next five years, government agencies along with private sector companies in surveying, agriculture, energy, retail, utilities, mining, construction, real estate, news media, film production and other fields are seeking out ways to commercialize UAV technology, or to at least use it to introduce new efficiencies and cost savings into their work processes.
The good news is that UAVs represent new technology that, in turn, opens up more commercial and operational possibilities for companies. On the “challenge” side of the equation, organizations looking to deploy UAVs face many open questions where a set of best practices just doesn’t exist.
Here are seven key areas that companies planning to deploy UAVs should plan for:
1. Rapidly-Evolving Regulations
The regulatory world for UAVs, both in the U.S. and globally, is evolving but unstable. National governments have come a long way in a short time to establish a rudimentary set of operating rules, but the lack of empirical experience with commercial UAVs will undoubtedly promote new additions to these rules, as well as revisions to existing rules. To complicate matters further, although countries are coming together on a basic set of operating standards, such as certifications for most commercial pilots, the guidelines for UAVs vary from country to country. In the U.S., businesses planning to use UAVs in their operations must obtain air worthiness and pilot certifications from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In France, there are well-defined standards for flying zones and altitudes, and in Japan, more formal rules for UAVs only became a point of discussion in 2015. Over the next few years, much of this uncertainty in guidelines will likely clear up. Meanwhile, companies need to ensure that they dedicate people or functions to keeping up with these rapidly-changing regulations, especially if they are planning to operate UAVs in multiple countries.
2. Cross-Border Goods Transport and Customs
For companies planning to transport cargo across national borders with UAVs, it is unclear what type of customs process would or should be employed, or duties to be paid. This is an area that the international community will want to resolve before cross-border transport becomes an everyday reality.
3. Airspace Safety
In March of 2014, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said that UAVS, whether they are being used for recreational, hobby, business or commercial purposes, “fall clearly under the definition of aircraft in U.S. law.” He continued, “Actually, all civil aircraft are subject to FAA regulation, and how high you fly does not carve out an exception. … We need to take a deliberate and measured approach when integrating UAS technology into the national airspace system.” This means that commercial drones will be likely to fall subject to many of the same rules the commercial and cargo aircraft are. Rules that commercial UAV operators should anticipate include: pre-defined maintenance checkup intervals that cover inspections and, if need be, replacement of props, sensors, controller boards and motors and motor alignments; certification of UAV airworthiness and durability so that delivery drones are sufficiently robust to make a specified number of deliveries between maintenance cycles and to minimally fly a required number of flights over their lifespans; the development of a UAV classification and licensing system that can cover drones of various shapes and sizes, and also of varying capabilities in terms of the types of cargo that they are able to transport; and a black box onboard each commercial UAV for purposes of investigation in case something goes wrong. On the logistics side, infrastructure will need to be created so that there are authorized landing ports for cargo carrying drones, and to coordinate the UAV landing spots and air routes with those that already exist for traditional aircraft. It also seems that commercial drone activity will need to be integrated into air traffic control systems.
4. Competent Pilots
Today, amateur UAV operators do not have to be certified or licensed, but most countries either have or are defining certification and licensing standards for commercial UAV pilots. Forward-thinking companies that want to immediately get into the UAV picture will be asking their human resource departments to assist them in the development of job descriptions and competencies for new internal UAV pilot positions.
5. Security, Hacking and Manual Overrides
Drones are Internet of Things (IoT) technology that can be easily hacked and/or compromised for security while in flight, and it’s already happening. A case in point is U.S. border control drones that are used to patrol remote stretches of the U.S.-Mexican border. These drones have been hacked by drug traffickers so the traffickers can cross the border illegally. Likewise, there is no reason to think that a nefarious group couldn't explode a UAV in flight by hacking through its security system. Security systems that protect against and deter rogue drone intrusions into critical areas are already surfacing, but much remains to be done in the area of security protection for each individual drone or in how to manually override automated systems in the UAV from the ground when a society compromise occurs.
6. Insurance and Financing
The insurance and finance industries have few precedents to go on when it comes to insuring or financing commercial UAVs. One of the unknowns is the risk involved, and how that factors into the price of financing and premiums. This will be a difficult area for corporate CFOs to navigate since they have to come up with numbers in the budget for financing and insurance.
7. Customer Satisfaction
In July 2015, the first successful UAV commercial delivery under FAA supervision — medical supplies to a medical clinic — occurred in Virginia. The event was a nine-minute flight that went without a hitch and that Virginia senator Mark Warner termed “a ‘Kitty Hawk’ moment” in the drone industry. But for commercial purveyors of goods by drone, the packaging of these goods must be aerodynamically designed for efficiency and energy economy, and parcels must also land into hands of authorized purchasers. Questions must still be answered, like who signs for the goods and/or accepts delivery if no one is at home.
Change Management, People and Business Processes
No one is talking much about the impact of disruptive UAV technology on existent business processes and people, yet the champions who introduce UAV operations into the corporate fabric must be as astute at managing processes and people as they are in using the UAVs. There will be a natural fear of losing control over one’s job, or losing one’s job altogether. Glitches in systems and operations should also be anticipated. In the systems area, some systems that must be integrated with the UAVs have IoT interfaces, but some do not. Still, others have these interfaces, but they do not work seamlessly with the interface points of the UAVs. So during a time when best practices are still forming, what do we already know that can help companies with their UAV activation efforts?
1. Assign Someone to Tracking Regulations
Regulations are constantly changing, and your organization needs to move with them. If you have an internal regulatory staff, tracking the UAV regulatory picture should become part of their daily work. If you don’t, retaining an attorney or a regulatory consultant who can be conferred with on an as-needed basis is important. The point is that you need to be as forward-thinking about the regularity picture and how it is shaping up as you are in the UAV technology.
2. Define UAV Pilot Requirements
Human resources should get busy developing job skills and requirements for UAV pilot positions, as well as in developing salary ranges for these positions and determining who these individuals will report to in the organization.
3. Carefully Assess and Pretest Workflows
This is one of the riskiest areas because employees don’t prefer to see major changes in how they do work, and all of the systems within a company that must integrate with each other are never in the same place. These issues should be resolved before attempting a commercial UAV deployment, and they should be piloted and/or pretested before they go live.
4. Understand the Consumer’s Point of View
You will have enthusiastic customers for your UAVs, but you will also have those who resent what they perceive as an intrusion into their privacy. Customer satisfaction should be a primary consideration in any UAV deployment if you are doing it for commercial gain.
5. Establish Financial, Insurance and Risk-Management Strategy
It might be difficult to get your present insurer to underwrite a UAV operation, or to obtain financing or leasing options. Financing and insurance companies are going to look at the risks and the unknowns of UAVs, and you should too.
Include UAVs in Disaster Recovery Plans
As IoT technology, UAVs will be subject to hacking and even crashes due to hacking. Security systems to prevent and to mitigate these events on your UAVs should be an integral part of your UAV project. You should also pencil UAV failover into your corporate disaster recovery plan.