ICAO finishes up its ‘unmanned aviation week’ as drones continue to rise in popularity

    ICAO has concluded its “Unmanned Aviation Week”, affirming the need for responsive regulatory frameworks to support the safe integration of unmanned air traffic innovations into the global aviation network.

    According to ICAO Secretary General Dr Fang Liu, remotely piloted and drone technologies have been “evolving rapidly in recent years, spurring thousands of new entrants to the aviation sector and a multitude of new products and services”. These, however, require incorporation into the global aviation framework.

    From 150,000 drones globally in 2016, there are expected to be 24 million drones by 2031. Naturally, this growth will be accompanied by an increase in economic activity. The growth so far has largely been on the recreational side, with commercial operations only now becoming more prevalent as regulators scramble to establish standard frameworks.

    Drone companies are, of course, the main beneficiaries of this interest. According to industry studies, the Chinese manufacturer DJI accounts for nearly 70% of the non-military small UAS market today, and has experienced a revenue increase from just over USD4 million in 2015 to a staggering USD1 billion in 2015.

    While Dr Liu acknowledges the opportunities this growth entails, she also recognises the related safety risks they pose to legacy aircraft/operations and populations on the ground.

    She said: “ICAO’s Member States anticipated these challenges when they mandated ICAO to develop new guidance for what are essentially domestic operations… Their goal in this regard was to make use of ICAO’s cooperative and consensus based decision mechanisms to realize practical and effective operational guidelines which could be codified for implementation in almost any urban environment”.

    Dr Liu particularly stressed that in order for the numerous socio-economic benefits of unmanned aviation to be realised, regulators must work to craft and implement a well structured and flexible regulatory framework, taking aviation’s long-standing safety performance prioritisation into consideration.

    Drones will do for aviation what the internet did for information

    The acting administrator of the US FAA, Dan Elwell, has likened the emergence of drones to what the “internet did for information”.

    The internet made information accessible to anyone with a connection. Drones are set to be the distributors of aviation in the widespread public.

    But further to this – the internet also enabled information to be verified and new streams of data to be created. A widespread uptake of drones means there is room to develop better and more efficient ways to operate – particularly commercially. These improvements may encompass newly emerging drone data services, fleet management, or even MRO.

    For example, Dallas-based Fortress UAV, a provider of drone repair services, recently launched a scheduled preventive maintenance service for drones. Fortress argues that their new programme “rivals those of manned aircraft maintenance services”, with prices between USD240 and USD1265, depending on drone model.

    This is an example of the commercial drone industry finding and expanding a new niche. “Preventive drone MRO” simply would not have existed a decade, or even five years, ago!

    It is important for regulators to allow this innovation to continue. Legislation should aim to promote invention and entrepreneurship while establishing clear boundaries. Although it has been well documented that there is no “one size fits all” for drone regulations, this is also true for many other industries – which have still been able to evolve to the point of mass adoption and safe usage.