This article originally appeared in slightly different form on DroneLife.
In the past year, the commercial drone industry in the U.S. has seen aerial robots evolve from a novelty to a serious tool.
Like a welder or a news camera, drones are used by human beings to get jobs done. These are often boots-on-the-ground jobs that require rugged tools—think construction, tower inspections, transmission lines, and oil rigs. As another piece of equipment, drones are allowing workers to safely obtain accurate data they may never have accessed before.
My company, Skyward, makes drone operations management software that enables these workers to do their jobs safely and efficiently. Every day I’m inspired and surprised by our customers’ use cases, from detecting potential archaeological sites to rerouting transmission lines.
Today, we’re seeing the most sophisticated companies deploying networks of drones. The tool may be high-tech, but the network is still very low-tech. Say a news producer wants footage of the aftermath of a recent hurricane. The deployment might look something like this:
- The producer emails or calls a drone pilot with a request for footage.
- The drone pilot drives his aircraft, cameras, and batteries to the scene.
- He acquires the footage legally, staying within visual line of sight and flying only one drone.
- He uploads the footage to Dropbox.
- The producer downloads the footage to compile the news segment.
This is fairly similar to how news producers have been dispatching camera crews for the past 50 years. The only differences are: 1. the camera is attached to a small aerial robot and 2. the remote pilot/cameraman can upload his footage to the Internet instead of delivering it in person.
The drone network of tomorrow will be different.
The same news producer will remotely dispatch multiple drones right from her office. She’ll specify the location, and the drones will fly there autonomously and collect footage. From the studio, the producer or a remote camera operator will control the cameras on the drones.
The drones may not even be owned by the news network, but rather be drones-for-hire stationed nearby. The footage will be delivered back to the producer instantaneously.
With the drone network of tomorrow, acquiring aerial data will be like buying season 12 of Top Gear from Amazon—with just a single search query and 1-2 clicks, you can access an entire TV show in just a few seconds from any device that’s connected to the Internet.
If this sounds far-fetched, consider this—most of the technology needed to create tomorrow’s drone network already exists:
- The drone network of tomorrow will require ubiquitous connectivity on an LTE network, the same network to which every smartphone is connected today.
- We’ll also need ground rules, a regulatory structure embedded in every participating aircraft and operating systems. There are several examples of this regulatory-hardware-software integration today. For example, you don’t need a ham radio license to send and receive data via a smartphone because the FCC has rules that telecommunication companies follow and that manufacturers embed in our devices.
- And we’ll need a system that can field diverse requests from all kinds of users, from tower inspectors to news producers, via regulated hardware and software.
We already have a robust connectivity infrastructure, and we already have highly advanced aircraft and sensors, as well as software that can program them. What we need is the technological and regulatory maturity to collapse all of those elements into our existing equipment and infrastructure.
Providing that blueprint and those rules of the road is the goal of the Global Unmanned Traffic Management Association (GUTMA).
As president of GUTMA, based in Switzerland, I’m privileged to head a broad coalition of air navigation service providers, UAS manufacturers, UAS operators, traffic management software providers, infrastructure providers, regulators, and academic experts from 15 countries.
Our job is to forge the social contract that will enable the safe and secure integration of drones into national airspace systems and to distribute an interoperability blueprint for drone traffic management for every business, operator, application, and aircraft to follow.
At heart, GUTMA is for drones what ICANN is for the Internet. ICANN coordinates the maintenance and procedures for all of the namespaces of the Internet and determines how we transfer packets of information all over the globe. Now, you don’t have to apply to ICANN for permission to set up a new website or to install a wireless router at your house, but they created the standards that every internet service provider, website, and email program follow. Their protocols are integrated so elegantly into the computers, websites, and networks we use that we don’t even think about it.
The result of these protocols and ground rules has been a level of innovation unmatched by any other period in human history. At the outset, did ICANN foresee the future of Google and Amazon and Facebook? Probably not. But ICANN made those life-changing innovations possible by setting the ground rules.
That’s what we at GUTMA aim to do for the aerial robotics industry. GUTMA is publishing the blueprints to the common infrastructure and the rules of this new digitally networked set of roads in the sky so that everyone else can innovate.
We are in a position to anticipate and address problems analogous to those of net neutrality that we’ve seen with the Internet. The sky may seem endlessly huge, but when the biggest companies in the world all begin to use algorithms to optimize pathways through the sky, the paths will become saturated unless we have an intelligent system of routing, geofencing, and avoiding.
United and Southwest do not rush to final descent at any airport, and they don’t try to knock me out of the air when I’m flying around in a Cessna. Creating a software-defined international airspace for drones will enable Amazon and Walmart to share the airspace with smaller businesses and hobbyists fairly and equitably.
Connected drones are inevitable. They are what’s coming next. They will provide basic benefits to businesses and individuals, connecting a kid’s birthday party to his grandmother on another continent or allowing a firefighter to react more quickly and safely to a hazmat situation.
The drone network of tomorrow will also have benefits at the scale of civilization, affecting how all of us do business and communicate. And maybe, one day, how we transport ourselves.