Building a Platform for Drones to Take-Off

This article originally appeared in the Corporate Venture Connection.

Forty years ago, a small group of researchers at Stanford Research Institute laid down the foundational principles that underpin what is now the Internet. In agreeing to build a modular, robust, and highly extensible end-to-end network, this team could not have appreciated the enormous economic engine they were about to unleash.

We now stand at a similar juncture with the explosion of unmanned aerial vehicles. The FAA has codified the earliest rules that will help define how we capitalize on this emerging industry and we have begun to see how drones can spark new economic opportunities across a wide range of industries. If we can adopt similar design principles to build a platform upon which services can be built to safely operate drones, and in a thoughtful and collaborative manner, the ‘Aerial Internet’ can be developed to be every bit as transformative as the digital Internet.

Proponents across a wide range of industries envision vast commercial applications for drones. For example, the agriculture sector has moved quickly to adopt UAVs to monitor crops and livestock. Law enforcement agencies, disaster response units, and weather forecasters are also incorporating UAV technology into their toolkits. While these use cases are fundamentally about moving bits – using UAVs to capture and transfer ones and zeros – this is merely the start. Beyond bits, moving atoms with UAVs represents tremendous economic and social impact. Reaching remote communities and delivering medical supplies and vaccines is another area where drone delivery can make a real impact.

But before the potential of these applications can be fully realized, we must build the information and data services that will enable UAVs to be safely integrated into the National Airspace at scale. Pilots will need to be licensed and demonstrate minimum knowledge requirements. Drones will need to be certified, registered, and properly provisioned for commercial operation. Operations must also be conducted in approved airspace. Establishing a common operating environment will not only ensure effective, safe, and scalable management of the airspace, but can also usher in fully autonomous UAVs. Drone operations software providers, like Skyward (a company recently acquired by Verizon), can lead this front. By enabling businesses of all sizes to efficiently manage their drone operations – linking all of the people, projects and equipment in an efficient workflow – this can help drive the UAV economy by transforming how we deliver goods.

While a flexible and federated approach will allow the UAV industry to best meet evolving regulations and technical capabilities, it will also be crucial for players and stakeholders to work together. It’s encouraging to see large entities, like Google, Amazon and now Verizon, collaborate with five-person startups armed with new ideas and cutting edge solutions. But not all have embraced openness and interoperability. Some startups still believe they alone can build a solution for the entire UTM system.

That is a mistake. History is full of examples of technologies that failed because competing stakeholders could not agree on standards or failed to make their proprietary technology widely available. We cannot afford to ignore these lessons; nor should we discard the principles of open collaboration that made the Internet so successful. Drones will not reach their full potential unless we build an equally modular, layered, resilient, and robust end-to-end framework that is federated across groups of stakeholders.

One collision between a UAV and an airliner could cast a deep chill over the commercial drone sector. We need to move swiftly and carefully to embrace the ethos of experimentation that has been the hallmark of the Internet age, while fully honoring the rich legacy of aviation safety. The time to build a robust infrastructure is now and we cannot afford to wait. Drone technology has arrived and the pressure to unleash their commercial potential is growing by the day. Real leadership is required to move forward purposefully, collaboratively, and safely, so we can define the rules that will frame the burgeoning UAV ecosystem.

David Famolari is Director at Verizon Ventures.