Uncertain future for UAV industry


Warnings over the future of the UAV industry due to legal, operational, and industry competition issues have emerged from a London seminar. Legal regimes covering UAVs are still in an embryonic stage and unless certain issues are resolved the sector could be held back, warned speakers from a technology law firm and consulting services.

There were also warnings that if the UAV sector was to move beyond an immature stage there would have to be standard regulations of operations and workflows in the sector.

A lawyer specializing in UAV legal issues, Peter Lee, a Senior Associate at Taylor Vinters, said in most countries the regime covering the sector was filled with uncertainty on key matters.

Potential liability and risk for both equipment manufacturers and operators would become more uncertain as the use of autonomous vehicles rose, he said.
“Who is responsible if a drone kills someone and how does this change as a drone becomes more autonomous?” was one such question, said Lee.

Export controls on US technology with potential dual military and civilian uses is also giving rise to a new set of issues for the sector, Lee said.

Other legal concerns were in the areas of airspace and airworthiness regulations. Lee said the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is in “paralysis” on its mandate to integrate UAVs into the air traffic control system. The restriction on flying for commercial purposes by the FAA had created a grey area and is increasingly being challenged.

While the UK air traffic regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, was “progressive” there were also problems with the minimal regulation of aircraft under 20 kg. This is an arbitrary cutoff for the exemption of airworthiness restrictions, although there are restrictions on operating these aircraft within line of sight, he argued.

A former RAF Air vice-marshal, Jerry Connolly, warned, “terrorism could find a breeding ground in small UAV’s.” Connolly, who runs Kestrel Associates, an aerospace and defence technology consulting firm warned that allowing hobbyists to fly UAVs with little regulation would increasingly pose safety and other dangers. “The mentality that it is easy to buy and therefore easy to fly is lunacy in this case,” said Connolly. Licensing, training, and maintenance issues should be addressed, he warned.

There were also warnings that the sector could be heading into “boom and bust.” Low barriers to entry into the UAV market and competition from other technologies could place new pressures on the industry, warned Robin Higgons, a director of technology consultants, Qi3.
“We are heading into boom and bust,” as the market is rapidly becoming saturated, said Higgons.

Demand for UAVs will depend on the payloads that users require them to carry. There are many alternative platforms such as lower cost satellites, aeroplanes, and helicopters. However, he did say that the prediction for a “bust” in the market does not allow for human ingenuity.
“People are going to provide an answer to a customer who can pay,” he said.