Efforts to develop commercial markets for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are ramping up as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) continues to loosen restrictions. During AUVSI’s recent Unmanned Systems 2015 conference, FAA chief Michael Huerta made a welcome announcement about new research projects that will focus on beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations in precision agriculture and railroad infrastructure inspection and management. By granting permission for UAS to be studied and evaluated for these particular applications, the FAA is demonstrating a willingness to safely accommodate certain commercial activities in the future.

“In the first ten years, once we have regulations to fly, we will create $84 billion of economic value, just for this industry alone,” said Brian Wynne, president and CEO of AUVSI, in an interview with Fox News on the exhibit floor. The commercial possibilities for UAS are forecast to grow exponentially. A webinar jointly held by ASPRS, AUVSI and MAPPS during the show touched on exactly this topic. Moderated by Chris Ogier, a board member of MAPPS, a panel of experienced geospatial professionals discussed the emerging commercial markets for UAS, and the anticipated evolution of UAS from stand-alone platforms to an enterprise surveying and mapping tool.

Don Weigel from Airware pointed out the tremendous opportunities for surveying and mapping infrastructure in the US with UAS. With 200,000 cell towers, 61,000 wind turbines and 2.5 million miles of gas pipeline, the inspection and monitoring business should be one of the first areas of commercial business developed.

Airware provides software and cloud services for drones. Weigel believes that the drone industry will have to move toward enterprise solutions, just like the gradual shift from laptops to enterprise systems throughout the GIS industry. To be effective, enterprise solutions must be reliable and repeatable, compliant and insurable and require minimal training. By automating difficult and repetitive tasks, integrating with existing software and workflows like GIS or CAD, and scaling across geography and time, an enterprise UAS solution will be able to provide actionable insights.

Dr. Matt Hutchinson of Woolpert explained how FAA 333 exemptions and blanket COAs allow Woolpert to receive compensation for commercial projects utilizing an Altavian F6500 fixed-wing UAS and a Skycatch rotor-wing. Entering the market now gives Woolpert’s staff the opportunity to familiarize themselves with UAS operations and data processing and to establish processes and safety procedures, as well as get customers used to the idea of using UAS.

Hutchinson is encouraged by progress being made in the industry, such as the NASA UAS Traffic Management system, blanket COAs, draft rulemaking, community discussions and the continuing research of BVLOS. In the future, assuming the BVLOS rules are revised, Woolpert looks forward to conducting line projects, for which UAS are highly suitable. Also, swarm and flock techniques rather than flying single UAS will become increasingly important for operators to become profitable.

Baptiste Tripard discussed senseFly’s business model, which consists of developing an easy-to-use integrated flight management software and stable platform and tool for processing while letting the customer concentrate on analyzing the results. The Swiss company’s eBee product is named in 20 FAA exemptions in the US at this time. The eBee carries a wide range of sensors to cover many applications all on one platform, including standard and high-end RGB, near-infrared, red-edge, multispectral and thermal.

SenseFly’s eXom platform is ideal for inspection projects because it is simple to operate, weighs less than four pounds, carries a video and digital camera and can tilt the camera to look underneath and around objects.

David Yoel, CEO at American Aerospace Advisors, explained that customers want their data products delivered economically, and they don’t really care what method is used. It’s not about airplanes, it’s about successfully integrating data and producing information. Yoel’s company has completed over 150 flights in the National Air Space (NAS) with UAV under FAA COAs.

Yoel believes there is potential for using medium-endurance UAV for pipeline integrity management. Testing has been going on since 2010 to identify gas leaks and geotechnical threats. A 12-mile pipeline corridor has been successfully mapped this year using BVLOS – the first in the U.S.

As demonstrated by the 600 exhibitors and more than 8,000 attendees at the AUVSI show, there is no shortage of people interested in developing UAS technology. The emerging commercial markets for UAS offer substantial business opportunity, and the next few years will be marked by rapid change throughout the industry.