Air Taxi, Unmanned

OPINION: Five Predictions for the Decade of the Drone

By Ben Marcus | March 27, 2020
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Ben Marcus, co-founder and chairmap of AirMap, offers five predictions for the coming decade with the drone industry is ‘ready to scale’ in the 2020s.

Below is an opinion piece by Ben Marcus, co-founder and chairman of AirMap, a solutions provider for unmanned airspace and fleet management.

The drone industry has come a long way in the last five years. Numerous innovative drone manufacturers and applications have emerged around the globe, and according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), there are now over 1.5 million drones registered in the U.S. alone. The industry has designed, tested and launched the fundamental technologies for UAS Traffic Management (UTM).

The FAA’s Low Altitude Authorization and Notification (LAANC) program, which offers automated digital airspace authorization for access to fly in controlled U.S. airspace, has enabled over one hundred thousand missions, reduced flight authorization time from up to 90 days to just a few seconds, and is now available to recreational operators. Switzerland became the first nation to implement a national UTM system called U-space, and aviation authorities around the globe are working hard to safely integrate drones into their national airspace. 

We’ve put the building blocks in place, and the drone industry is now ready to scale in a big way. So get excited about drones becoming part of your daily life, and be on the lookout for these five major developments I predict we’ll see in the 2020s. 

Welcome to the decade of the drone.

Prediction #1: Advanced Capabilities  

We won’t be able to reap the societal benefits of drones until they’re able to fly safely over people, beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) and at night. These advanced capabilities will enable complex drone operations and unlock a broader drone economy—but only if proper rules and regulations are in place. Authorities around the globe are creating those regulations now. On December 26, 2019, the FAA released a proposed Remote ID rule allowing authorities to identify nearly all drones operating in U.S. low-altitude airspace. The rule lays the groundwork for other advanced operations, including BVLOS. 

BVLOS capabilities are key to further drone enablement and have been the subject of government-sponsored research projects by NASA and the FAA in the United States, and SESAR Joint Undertaking in the European Union. I anticipate that we’ll see the culmination of those studies in the coming year. 

Prediction #2: Enterprise Enablement

PwC estimates that the total addressable market for commercial drones is $127.3 billion. That includes $45.2 billion in infrastructure, $32.4 billion in agriculture, $13 billion in transport and $10.5 billion in security. As more corporations look to capitalize on these commercial opportunities, investment continues to grow.  According to Drone Industry Insights’ Drone Market Report 2019, energy is the largest industry participating drone market, but transportation and warehousing use of drones is growing fast.  When it comes to applications, inspection remains the leading use for drones, although drone deliveries will accelerate as we move into the second half of the decade.     

The business case for drones is strong. As the World Economic Forum (WEF) notes, drones have the potential to transform business models and revolutionize how people and goods are transported. That’s why I predict that in the 2020s, enterprise use of drones will skyrocket and major corporations will invest in drones in a big way. 

Prediction #3: Increased Automation

Automation is already revolutionizing the drone economy. Just look at the FAA’s Low Altitude Authorization and Notification (LAANC) program: by automating airspace authorization, it has enabled over 100,000 drone flights. 

Enterprises are also using automation, taking advantage of automated data capture and processing workflows to support their activities. Drones are fantastic flying sensors that capture high-precision data, spot defects, and track changes over time—and using drones is much cheaper and safer than conducting manual inspections. According to Goldman Sachs Research, pipeline inspections that used to require a $2,500 per hour helicopter crew can now be done by drone. According to CB Insights, following the destruction of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, telecommunication companies like AT&T and Verizon used drones to inspect towers—a process that would have been too dangerous and time-consuming to do manually. 

As drone automation continues to increase, enterprises will start creating and updating comprehensive digital twins of their assets. We’ll see automation play a big role in the drone industry in the coming decade: it will make high-volume, complex operations possible, increase safety, and enable the drone economy to scale to greater heights. 

Prediction #4: Urban Air Mobility 

Whether for last mile delivery, public transportation or air taxis, electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles (eVTOLS) hold enormous promise. By ferrying people through the low-altitude sky, Urban Air Mobility (UAM) will likely serve as an airborne alternative to crowded freeways. 

According to the Vertical Flight Society’s World eVTOL Aircraft Directory, there are already over 200 aircraft concepts currently in development. Industry powerhouses Volocopter, Boeing, Airbus, Bell, Lilium, Beta Technologies and Joby are all working on their own eVTOL concepts. Uber plans to run initial test flights in 2020 and debut commercial aerial services in Dallas, Los Angeles and Melbourne in 2023.

By the end of the decade, NASA estimates that there will be approximately 23,000 air taxis transporting around 740 million passengers worldwide. With UAM, we can reduce fossil fuel emissions and open the door to using airspace to provide emergency services to people in crisis.

Ben Marcus, chairman and co-founder, AirMap.

The only way to unlock these benefits at scale is with a robust, safety-first and automated air traffic management system designed for autonomous aerial vehicles. The UTM system we’re building today will serve as the bedrock for Urban Air Mobility. By creating a new air traffic management paradigm that allows drones to fly safely, autonomously and at scale, we pave the way for a future where Jetsons-style flying taxis will be the new normal.  

Prediction #5: A New Era of Aviation

For a long time, we’ve thought of aviation as just one thing: planes flying into airports. But in the coming decade, the skies will be different. We’ll see drone missions increase in scope and scale: there will be delivery drones, recreational drones, enterprise drones, public safety drones, and more. Urban air mobility will become a reality. We’ll expand what aviation means, usher in a new era of flight and reap the societal benefits drones provide (think lower carbon emissions, better information about our assets, and increased access to global markets). 

Exciting developments are in store—and the Decade of the Drone is just getting started. 

Ben Marcus is an aviation expert and executive. Prior to AirMap, he co-founded and was CEO of jetAVIVA, the world’s largest light business jet sales company. He started his career as a flight instructor and later became a flight test engineer. Ben currently serves on the board of Angel Flight West.

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