2015 was a whirlwind year for drones — consumer drone sales hit records, the FAA called for drone registration, and the commercial drone regulation deadline was missed. We saw drones epically (and dangerously) crash, and we also saw epic innovation in the technology, with everything from improved cameras to quads that are easier to fly than ever.
So what can we expect to see in 2016? Here are 4 controversies that will continue to develop, be resolved, or lead to even greater debate in a community that is rapidly innovating:
REGISTRATION: The Federal Aviation Administration in mid-December announced a rule requiring drone owners to register their vehicles by Feb. 19, 2016.
Drone owners will have to register through a website for $5 per drone owner, in line with current FAA requirements for registering an aircraft. To encourage registration, the FAA said it would refund the $5 fee for drones registered in the first 30 days of the site’s availability, through Jan. 20. Registration will cover all of an owner’s drones weighing between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds.
The purpose: The purpose is two-fold: the first is to identify users of drones that go rogue (ie. crash somewhere they aren’t supposed to be and the owner can’t be found). It’s also to force a small amount of education upon users and to symbolically state that drones are tools, not toys.
The controversy: Some have felt that registration is unnecessary, imposing, costly, will just turn into one more dataset to be hacked and won’t achieve anything. The thinking is reckless drone operators won’t actually register, while responsible pilots will, so there is no purpose in going through the hassle of the process.
Others feel that it is not too burdensome, but could go a long way in preventing cases of people who simply don’t know they are near an airport or not to fly over people. It’s a small step in preventing greater harm.
The Drone Girl prediction: Despite some saying that what the FAA is doing is illegal, the process will go on and users will have to register. It likely won’t be enforced 100% in the sense that 99% of drone users will get away with never being registered (cops have other things to enforce), but we will see some cases of operators being prosecuted.
GEOFENCING: DJI in November announced a software update to its drones designed to limit flying over sensitive areas like prisons and airports. It currently uses geofencing, a software feature that acts as a virtual barrier, to completely prevent its drones from flying over “no-fly-zones,” which are mostly airports and Washington, D.C. DJI’s new system will provide temporary access to restricted flight zones to drone operators with verified DJI accounts registered with a credit card, debit card or mobile phone number.
The controversy: Some have felt that limiting where people can fly infringes on one’s freedom to fly a drone. Many are worried about the technological implementation.
Others feel more companies should follow DJI’s lead in geofencing, leaving it up to the manufacturer to prevent drones from taking off in unsafe places rather than leave it to the user to know where they can and can’t fly.
The Drone Girl prediction: More drone manufacturers will implement some form of geofencing, much like DJI’s. This will prevent drone manufacturers from seeing their products receive bad press should drones crash in places such as near airports or The White House lawn.
COMMERCIAL DRONE USE: Commercial drone use is currently illegal in the U.S. without an exemption certificate. Congress asked the FAA to come up with rules governing commercial drone use in 2012, setting a 2015 deadline. The FAA missed that deadline, and now anticipates announcing rules for legal, commercial operation of drones by June 2016.
The controversy: One thing you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagrees: banning commercial drone use in the U.S. severely impedes the country’s ability to innovate and grow in the drone industry.
But, many disagree on how commercial legalization of drones would be implemented. Will there be insurance, training or safety standards? What type of licensing can we expect?
DEFINING THE MAJOR PLAYERS: In the consumer drone market, it’s pretty clear that DJI is king. There’s certainly room for a No. 2 competitor drone. Which will it be? But is there room for more than 2?
The Drone Girl prediction: Yuneec seems like a promising No. 2 with a reliable and reasonably priced product. Then you have the companies out there with big money. Berkeley, Calif.-based 3D Robotics Inc. and a newer competitor, Beijing Ehang Chuangshi Technology Co. Ltd., raised $64.7 million and $42 million, respectively, according to Dow Jones Venture Source. And what about the players that target the toy crowd, like Parrot? There is also a big new player coming on the market, Autel, which is slated to have a huge presence at CES this year. One will emerge as a strong No. 2, while a lot of companies will fold.
What are your predictions? Leave a comment below, or tweet me @TheDroneGirl.