The Missing Link for the UAS Industry
Ever since Jeff Bezos appeared on 60 Minutes and announced that Amazon had been looking into using unmanned aerial systems (UAS) as a means to deliver packages, the commercial sector (at least in the US) was beginning to pop, and there was hype across the entire general public. It seemed like UAS was going to be the next big thing. People were excited about the potential it had and all the different ways it could improve our lives.
As exciting and innovative as the technology has become over the years, the reality is that it hasn’t come close to what we had all hoped. The hype as it seems, appeared to be overblown. The general public now views the technology as more gimmicky than the new era level innovative technology they come to expect.
First step to fixing a problem is admitting there is one.
Many people would say that the industry is doing great. I would argue the exact opposite. Sure, there has been a ton of money invested into companies providing a plethora of solutions, plenty of money being spent buying the v
arying hardware and software options, and the technology itself is improving rapidly over a short amount of time… so what’s the problem? Sounds like the Industry is booming after all that, right?
Here’s the problem: The ones who truly stand to benefit from what this technology has to offer don’t know how to use it and where to start.
For one, there’s a noteworthy separation between the knowledge base and core competencies between an aviation professional and that of a construction site manager. Some in the industry would say it’s never been easier for anyone to become a Commercial UAS Pilot, at least according to FAA Part 107 Regulations. Anyone could do it. There’s some truth to that. On the other hand, passing the test means next to nothing with understanding how to properly operate the equipment, or even choosing the right equipment for that matter. People are still going out and buying a consumer grade toy off the shelves, and wondering why they’re not getting what they need and want.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard of companies across multiple industries expecting to develop their own program in house, and either crashing the system or never using it more than once. Then that was the end of their use of UAS.
The technology is not being properly leveraged.
A lot of people are also still under the impression that every system under the “drone” moniker is simply a camera that can fly. Professionals within the UAS Industry know better than that. But what good does that do if the one making use of what the system produces (the data) is not aware of that? The ones making use of the data have very specific needs for what type of accuracy and quality they’re looking for. Meanwhile, the ones in the UAS Industry want to spend time focusing on the flight performance specifications. Two different sides, one trying to disrupt the market for the other, and they’re having two completely different conversations. The ones making use of the data, quite frankly, don’t care one bit about what’s being flown, so long as it gives them what they want: the data they need.
It’s no wonder that there’s a disconnect between those in UAS, and those that can benefit from UAS.
Let’s recap: Those who stand to benefit don’t truly know what this technology can do for them, and don’t know how to use it themselves or where to begin to get what they want out of it.
Now what if there was a business model specifically designed specifically around aviation professionals knowing what equipment to fly, flying the best equipment on the market, treating operations no different than what you would hope to expect out of any manned aviation operations, and could effectively communicate exactly what their clientele, or the end use of the data, can expect in that final deliverable?
An Unmanned Aerial Systems Service Provider.
I wholeheartedly believe that is the key to leveraging this technology to what we all know it can become: mainstream mass-adoption across multiple sectors.
As an analogy, If I want to get to Seattle from Phoenix, and I know that the quickest way is hopping on to a Boeing 747, do I expect to fly it myself? Absolutely not. I’m going to leave that to the trained and certified pilots and other aviation professionals along the way who can guarantee a safe flight without me having to lift so much as a finger. What if we tried treating UAS the same way? Maybe the best solution is to let those who have years of experience flying, and have the accompanying Standard Operating Procedures and the Safety Management Systems handle the work, instead of trying to sell a Boeing 747 to everyone and fly it themselves thinking they can all get from Point A to Point B without any issues.
And don’t for one second believe that the rules and regulations are going to continue becoming more and more relaxed on Commercial UAS Operations in the National Airspace as time goes on. Things might be opening up with regards to Beyond Visual Line of Sight, Night Operations, and flying above crowds, but none of that has anything to do with the Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen Program. As that expands, it adds another host of factors (i.e. Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast requirement) to be accounted for with those wanting to operate safely, legally, and professionally.
Either way things go, it’s clear that the means to fully utilize this technology is to turn towards the Service Providers in this space, with flight crews made up of trained and experienced aviation professionals, equipped with the best systems, and can deliver the data to the end user in a safe, fast, and accurate manner, without the end users of the data worrying about working a UAS Operator into their own company’s organizational structure.
A month ago, I wrote about how despite all the hype over the UAS Industry in the past few years, the reality is there is still a disconnect that’s preventing this technology from being properly leveraged to what we in the industry know that it can be. I highlighted the issue that those who truly stand to benefit from the technology don’t know how to use it or where to begin.
My solution to this unmet opportunity was simple: A trusted Unmanned Aerial Systems Service Provider is all that’s missing in making the benefits of UAS technology easily accessible on a massive scale.
That is only half the answer.
In my last article I used the analogy, “If I want to get to Seattle from Phoenix, and I know that the quickest way is hopping on to a Boeing 747, do I expect to fly it myself? Absolutely not. I’m going to leave that to the trained and certified pilots and other aviation professionals along the way who can guarantee a safe flight without me having to lift so much as a finger. What if we tried treating UAS the same way? Maybe the best solution is to let those who have years of experience flying, and have the accompanying Standard Operating Procedures and the Safety Management Systems handle the work, instead of trying to sell a Boeing 747 to everyone and fly it themselves thinking they can all get from Point A to Point B without any issues.”
Sounds good and fine, but what does this analogy all of a sudden look like when the credibility and legitimacy of the aviation professional is in question? I probably wouldn’t want to step foot on that plane.
In my analogy, it is assumed that the pilot is a true aviation professional. Highly trained and certified, with years of experience, and backed by industry grade standard operating procedures and safety management systems, and using the best equipment to date to ensure a safe and satisfactory travel experience. We wouldn’t bat an eye hearing that in the context of a major airline, because with our expectations that should be a basic prerequisite for the Industry.
Where do we see that standard in UAS?
This is not to say that there isn’t a wealth of highly experienced aviation professionals that have made the transition to the UAS Industry, and are bringing along with them the same standards and practices that they’ve executed time and time again… That still doesn’t tell the whole story of what’s going on. It’s not just the aviation experience and knowledge that applies.
UAS Operators have spent all their time and focus on the operations of aircraft, and meanwhile completely missed the point of what they’re flying for.
It’s what makes things tricky with the UAS Industry. This is the point where my analogy I keep referencing falls apart and loses some relevance. With that analogy, the same basic solution exists across the board with air travel: Get _______ from Point A to Point B. It’s the same whether I’m talking about an airline, charter flights, or shipping. That blank might change, but the same principle applies, which means I don’t have much standing in my way with swapping pilots between different applications for the proverbial blank, because the solution and the expertise needed to provide said solution remains more or less constant. The same cannot be said about UAS, and here’s why:
There are basically no constants between UAS applications
Many individuals are under the impression that after passing the Part 107 Test and buying a toy off the shelf, that they are now properly trained, certified, and knowledgeable to solve issues in infrastructure inspection, search and rescue, agriculture, and cinematography. Putting it like that, I hope you see what I see, and recognize that for what it is, which is pure madness. Plus, it’s just not good business either. No one should try to be all things to all people. Find a niche, and stick with it. It’s not just a matter of different UAS platforms fitting the needs for each application, but how it’s different and makes things better than before for those applications. Simply having a UAS on hand and going through the appropriate regulatory channels within the FAA does not make an individual now suddenly qualified to do the exact same work as an engineer, or farmer, or emergency responder.
The real world doesn’t award participation trophies. It rewards skills and abilities, and being able to fly a UAS alone is not on its own a valuable skill. You got to know what you’re flying for and be good at that. If I’m flying UAS for inspections, I should probably know a thing or two about thermography to identify hot spots (and there’s a whole host of other tangents depending on WHAT you’re inspecting). If I’m flying it for land surveying, I should probably know a thing or two about the accuracy tolerance standards in the state I’m operating. I doubt they care one bit if I’m able to recite 14 CFR Part 107 word for word start-to-finish. That does nothing for them. Like I talked about with the end users not knowing where to begin with using the technology themselves, the UAS operators are not familiar with the industry applications they claim to have a solution for.
As much as I’ve said before that UAS Service Providers were the missing link, I think it’s fair to play a game of Devil’s Advocate and acknowledge that one could just as easily say that it’s some of the service providers in the market that are holding the industry back.
Don’t you dare tell me that buying a toy from Walmart last week makes you qualified to do inspections on bridges for the Department of Transportation.
To best solve a problem in a market that you are trying to sell to, it’s probably a good idea to have an in-depth understanding of your customer segment, which is an understatement. Understanding their pains, what they need, and the gains that can be created by implementing UAS for their specific application. I have some doubts that a Land Surveyor would give you the time of day if you come in with something you bought yesterday that their kid got for Christmas and tell them that you can get better data than their Topcon Positioning Equipment. Otherwise you’re just selling Snake Oil to someone who already knows they don’t want Snake Oil.
For any UAS Service Provider to make a meaningful difference, it’s not enough to strive for excellence in aviation industry practices and standards, but to do the same for a specific niche in the marketplace. Just like in any other business, know your target market, and know how to speak their language.
If that change can happen, we might see a few more unmanned systems in our National Airspace, and we’ll finally get to that point of UAS giving us that unparalleled leverage over our spatial environment, and make it become the new standard in data retrieval.