The promise of autonomous technology is driving much of the investment in companies working to bring it to market. From swarms of drones inspecting critical infrastructure, such as power lines, to single vehicles delivering goods on-demand in urban areas, the possibilities are seemingly endless.
Unfortunately, these big-picture possibilities are playing too large a role in shaping both regulations and the related standards that industry will follow to turn promise into reality. The gap between what's possible and what's probable--in other words, what should be focused on today by both innovators and regulators--is claiming casualties, and will continue to do so until that gap is closed.
Let's take the simple concept of using drones to perform inspections. Without rules that cover beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations, the ability to use an unmanned flying machine to inspect anything is significantly limited. But rather than focus on the most complicated use cases--flying a drone over hundreds of miles through multiple jurisdictions to inspect a power grid, for example--rules and related standards should start with simpler, and more compelling, business cases. For BVLOS, that could mean crafting regulations that permit drones to leave an operator's sight for a few moments. Such guidelines would pave the way for inspections of, say, buildings and other large structures.
Prioritizing early-adopter business cases for rules and related standards may seem like taking the proverbial baby-steps approach, but it beats the alternative: paralysis caused by trying to solve all of the potential problems a use case has, instead of the most pressing—and commercially viable--ones. This approach applies to technology developers, too.
One of the most common trends we run into is a company's inability to sell end users on their vision. Too often, systems companies are developing place too much emphasis on what their technology can do, and not enough on what potential customers need to accomplish. If the regulators follow suit, industry faces the stark reality of being stuck in neutral while theoretical debates rage over how to solve challenges that apply to 5% of use cases, instead of focusing on the 95% that present fewer problems, and greater potential.
The principle of developing rules and standards one step at a time sounds simple enough, but what does it look like in practice? One approach is to dispense with the notion that rules developed for manned aircraft should be set aside in favor of starting from scratch. While tempting to some because of the presumed flexibilities, a more prudent approach is to adopt manned rules to the unmanned world.
Why? Simply put, the manned and unmanned operations must co-exist in the real world, and the regulators that developed the manned regulations must also develop the unmanned ones.
Some obvious requirements can be tossed out when crafting regulations for unmanned systems--think onboard emergency oxygen systems for pilots. But in many other cases, shaping current regulations and standards to fit the unmanned space makes sense. Areas like systems redundancy, security, maintenance programs and airworthiness standards all have a place in autonomous flight and have undergone years of regulatory evolution in manned aviation. That should be embraced, not shunned.
Creating regulations for the unmanned aircraft system industry will require a great deal of time and effort by both regulators and stakeholders. This effort should be focused on standards that be used broadly today, not use cases that are unlikely to ever be commercially viable. Adapting this approach will help both end users and, just as importantly, the first-mover systems developers that must have a viable market to keep their businesses going--and growing.