drone in flight in snow
According to US aviation officials, there could be 7 million small drones in the sky by 2020 PHOTO: Ben White

It’s a bird .... It’s a plane .... Actually, it’s your neighborhood drone. 

Expect the skies to get a little bit busier in 2017, as more buzzing devices take to the air. 

Fly the Friendly Skies

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has authorized almost 3,000 businesses, universities, nonprofits and research groups in the US to fly small unmanned aircraft systems, more commonly known as drones. An additional 400,000 hobbyist drone users registered their crafts with the FAA who fly for purely recreational purposes.

Analysts are predicting that demand will skyrocket. The commercial drone market could increase from around $5.2 billion last year to $27.1 billion by 2021, according to WinterGreen Research, a Lexington, Mass.-based firm that studies different technology sectors.

US aviation officials estimate up to 7 million small drones will be in the sky by 2020, with as many as 2.7 million of them in use for commercial purposes.

Commercial Drones, Cleared for Take-Off

The FAA issued new rules in 2016 that expanded the uses of drones in commercial applications. These new regulations set in place safety requirements, flight restrictions and more in an effort to minimize risk while maximizing the potential benefits drones offer in to spur job growth, advance critical scientific research and save lives. 

The press release announcing the regulations noted, "According to industry estimates, the rule could generate more than $82 billion for the US economy and create more than 100,000 new jobs over the next 10 years."

Previously, any for-profit entity flying a drone — from real estate agents to farmers to photographers — needed a pilot's license. 

The updated rules, referred to as “Part 107” replaces that license with a knowledge test and certificate specific to flying a drone allowing companies a much cheaper, faster and simpler path to getting in the air.

FAA Part 107 is historic in that it proclaims that drones can be safely integrated into the national airspace. It paves the way for wider adoption of drones for all sorts of non-recreational uses which could bring real benefits to the US.

While the new rules will enable faster adoption, it also set sets in place safeguards, such as commercial drones may only fly during daylight, must stay below 400 feet and can weigh no more than 55 pounds. 

The new rules also establish a top speed of 100 miles per hour. Small drones will now be allowed to fly in sparsely populated areas without FAA approval, but must still work with air traffic control if they are planning to fly a mission over crowded airspace or above heavily populated areas. 

The Race to Drone Delivery

A 60 Minutes episode in 2013 with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos brought drones to popular attention when Bezos revealed the company's plans for drone delivery.

While the launch of Amazon Prime Air awaits the conclusion of drone safety testing, drones remain central to the company's future. It's easy to envision an autonomous future for Amazon, which combines drones with warehouses manned by robots and trucks that drive themselves.

Amazon is not alone in its drone exploration. 

Transportation giant UPS has been working with drone-maker CyPhy Works to make commercial deliveries of packages to remote or difficult to access locations possible. 

UPS completed a drone delivery in which a flying robot delivered an asthma inhaler to a children’s summer camp on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. The programmed flight path for the drone let it fly autonomously for three miles from the city of Beverly, Mass. located near 25 miles outside of Boston, to the summer camp on Children’s Island. The flight took roughly eight minutes for the drone to complete. 

DHL's focus on drone delivery precedes Amazon's. The German shipping company started experimenting with drones in 2013 and has made steady strides, now with the third generation of its "Parcelcopter," which does in eight minutes what it would take a standard mail-delivery vehicle half an hour to complete. 

It started by sending small parcels across the Rhine on a quadcopter and then delivering medical supplies to a North Sea Island in 2014. Now DHL has built a carbon fiber tilt-rotor drone that takes off like a helicopter and flies like a plane. It’s got a six-foot wingspan, a payload of 4.5 pounds and ax speed of 80 miles per hour.

Eyes in the Sky Offer Safety Benefits

Energy companies are quickly realizing the safety benefits of using “remotely operated aerial vehicles” (ROAVs) or drones to examine unsafe areas. 

Shell is increasingly using drones to inspect oil and gas facilities in hard to reach places, such as a tall tower or the underbelly of an offshore oil rig, for both safety and efficiency reasons. The array of cameras and sensors on the drones drones make it possible to quickly and thoroughly examine parts of facilities that engineers would need scaffolding or other equipment to reach. 

New York City energy provider Con Edison is using drones equipped with cameras and thermal systems for inspections at one of its steam plants on the East Side of Manhattan. Workers typically have to go through confined-space training and build tall scaffoldings to check a plant's boilers. 

Con Edison's round, 1.1-pound carbon fiber machines can simply fly, capturing videos and photos.

UK railway provider, Network Rail, as part of it’s as part of their Offering Rail Better Information Services (ORBIS) program is using drones to capture detailed photographs in 3-D and cross-sections so employees can pull up a map of the network, complete with minute details. This will improve track maintenance and boost field worker efficiency, while reducing the required amount of working at height on Network Rail’s assets.

Keeping Drones Connected 

The idea that drones can operate safely and more securely on commercial 4G LTE networks is being explored by AT&T subsidiary Qualcomm. 

The team will look at coverage, signal, strength and mobility across network cells and how they function in flight. Wireless technology can bring many advantages to drones such as ubiquitous coverage, high-speed mobile support, robust security, high reliability and quality of service.

As drones begin to monopolize the skies, there needs to be a way for those flying devices to connect to a network. Keeping track of drones so they don’t crash or harm people is critical to their future. Having network connections also make it easier to transmit data, photography, etc. back to data centers.  

Drones Take to the Skies in 2017

Drones will be the future of human augmentation. They offer inexpensive, safe alternatives to helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft for mapping, photography and imaging. Drones will only mature in 2017 with the development of new sensors that keep humans from having to deal with or even enter dangerous environments.

So as we look at the year ahead, expect the skies to be buzzing with drones and an even bigger buzz on the ground as companies explore the possibilities these aircrafts can offer.