Drone airspace management:  ICAO issues call for innovative solutions

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By Muhammad Luqman

Gone are the days when drones were only used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions and military operations against militants in South Asia and Africa. Over the last decade, their commercial and peaceful use has increased significantly across the world.  Be it drone deliveries, drone inspections and even  flying taxis, once sci-fi film ideas are about to become realities.

So Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV ) is now boon as well as bane for the humanity.  Due to this fact, a drone is one of two very different kinds of pilotless aircraft: a toy or a weapon. It is either a small, insect-like device that can sometimes be seen buzzing around in parks or on beaches, or a large military aircraft that deals death from above. Shooting of wedding ceremonies and  protest processions by camera-mounted drones has popularized the use of this otherwise dangerous gadget. Even Uber is planning to launch flying taxis in Kenya and the United Arab Emirates.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) aren’t new.  Nations have been using drones in combat since at least World War II, and they’ve made up an important part of the aerial arsenal ever since. However, in the last two decades, the massive expansion of communications bandwidth has combined with the ongoing miniaturization of electronic components to produce a Golden Age of UAV technology. United States, Israel and China are the leading manufacturing nations. Iran and China have recently entered the drone manufacturing nations’ club.

With the promotion of peaceful use of the UAVs,  recreational drones aimed at consumers, is highly numerous by far; around two million were sold around the world last year, according to research firm CB Insights. However, military drones account for the vast majority of worldwide spending on drones, estimated to be nearly 90 percent.

Last year around 110,000 drones, technically known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, were sold for commercial use, according to a Goldman Sachs report,  that figure is expected to rise to 174,000 by the end of 2018, and the number of consumer drones to 2.8m.

“Although unit sales of commercial drones are much smaller, total revenues from them are nearly twice as big as for the consumer kind,” the report said.

Goldman Sachs report, labeled “Drones Reporting for Work,” showed that drones are becoming “powerful business tools.”

“Of the total of $100 billion likely to be spent on both military and civilian drones between 2016 and 2020, the commercial segment would be the fastest-growing, notably in construction, accounting for $11.2 billion, agriculture at $5.9 billion, insurance at $1.4 billion, and infrastructure inspection at $1.1 billion,” the report explained.

The wider use of  unmanned aerial vehicles  has necessitated the formulation of regulations on international level. Recognizing that an agreed global approach will greatly assist businesses and others in launching their UAS services with suitable levels of investment confidence and operational safety, Montreal –based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is working on how to make the use of the UAVs safe.

“We are convening  second DRONE ENABLE event for 13-14 September in Chengdu, China,” an ICAO official said.

The focus of the event will be on exploring new solutions with experts and innovators from industry, academia and other areas to help globally coordinate the development of UAS activities, and safely integrate UAS traffic management systems and existing conventional air traffic management systems.

In preparation for the Chengdu event, ICAO has also issued a second request for information (RFI) to expand on the guidance material which was initiated after its first DRONE ENABLE in 2017.

“Multiple States and regional groups have activities underway to establish a UAS airspace management tool for lower altitudes, and ICAO’s work through this RFI process will help to facilitate harmonized solutions which are safe, secure, sustainable, and most importantly globally aligned,” ICAO official said.

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