A Year in the Drone Age

Input Voltage

–Jeff Child, Editor-in-Chief

JeffHeadShot

When you’re trying to keep tabs on any young, fast-growing technology, it’s tempting to say “this is the big year” for that technology. Problem is that odds are the following year could be just as significant. Such is the case with commercial drones. Drone technology fascinates me partly because it represents one of the clearest examples of an application that wouldn’t exist without today’s level of chip integration driven by Moore’s law. That integration has enabled 4k HD video capture, image stabilization, new levels of autonomy and even highly compact supercomputing to fly aboard today’s commercial and consumer drones.

Beyond the technology side, drones make for a rich topic of discussion because of the many safety, privacy and regulatory issues surrounding them. And then there are the wide-open questions on what new applications will drones be used for?

For its part, the Federal Aviation Administration has had its hands full this year regarding drones. In the spring, for example, the FAA completed its fifth and final field evaluation of potential drone detection systems at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. The evaluation was the latest in a series of detection system evaluations that began in February 2016 at several airports. For the DFW test, the FAA teamed with Gryphon Sensors as its industry partner. The company’s drone detection technologies include radar, radio frequency and electro-optical systems. The FAA intends to use the information gathered during these kinds of evaluations to craft performance standards for any drone detection technology that may be deployed in or around U.S. airports.

In early summer, the FAA set up a new Aviation Rulemaking Committee tasked to help the agency create standards for remotely identifying and tracking unmanned aircraft during operations. The rulemaking committee will examine what technology is available or needs to be created to identify and track unmanned aircraft in flight.

This year as also saw vivid examples of the transformative role drones are playing. A perfect example was the role drones played in August during the flooding in Texas after Hurricane Harvey. In his keynote speech at this year’s InterDrone show, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta described how drones made an incredible impact. “After the floodwaters had inundated homes, businesses, roadways and industries, a wide variety of agencies sought FAA authorization to fly drones in airspace covered by Temporary Flight Restrictions,” said Huerta. “We recognized that we needed to move fast—faster than we have ever moved before. In most cases, we were able to approve individual operations within minutes of receiving a request.”

Huerta went on to described some of the ways drones were used. A railroad company used drones to survey damage to a rail line that cuts through Houston. Oil and energy companies flew drones to spot damage to their flooded infrastructure. Drones helped a fire department and county emergency management officials check for damage to roads, bridges, underpasses and water treatment plants that could require immediate repair. Meanwhile, cell tower companies flew them to assess damage to their towers and associated ground equipment and insurance companies began assessing damage to neighborhoods. In many of those situations, drones were able to conduct low-level operations more efficiently—and more safely—than could have been done with manned aircraft.

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the hurricane response will be looked back upon as a landmark in the evolution of drone usage in this country,” said Huerta. “And I believe the drone industry itself deserves a lot of credit for enabling this to happen. That’s because the pace of innovation in the drone industry is like nothing we have seen before. If people can dream up a new use for drones, they’re transforming it into reality.”

Clearly, it’s been significant year for drone technology. And I’m excited for Circuit Cellar to go deeper with our drone embedded technology coverage in 2018. But I don’t think I’ll dare say that “this was the big year” for drones. I have a feeling it’s just one of many to come.

This appears in the December (329) issue of Circuit Cellar magazine

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