LAS VEGAS — Drone vendors got special exhibition space just for them at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, a testament to the public's growing interest in the new product category and its awareness about pending regulations to both allow and control in the use of unmanned aircraft in U.S. skies.
No longer confined to the military space, unmanned aerial vehicles are proliferating in all shapes, sizes and numbers. Those showcased at CES range from commercial drones – big and sturdy enough for Amazon package delivery – to toy mini-drones priced at less than $150.
AirDog's leash and drone
One drone that got lots of attention was presented by AirDog. The company started its drone project with a Kickstarter campaign last summer. It has now developed a wrist-worn “leash” that makes the drone follow its “master.”
AirDog isn’t the only drone company taking its cue from the growing selfie boom. Other suppliers such as Hexo+, Zano, Trace, and Ghost also pitched “follow-me” features.
Increasingly clear to those in the electronics industry is that drones are no longer just a gadget fad. As Henri Seydoux, the founder and CEO of Parrot, once told EE Times, “they are toys that are as serious and as well-designed as cars."
Critical to enabling the drones to be reliable and accessible are advancements in sensors. Seydoux told us, “Without MEMS, drones wouldn’t have been where they are today.” Indeed, today’s drones are loaded with MEMs. They include an image sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, barometer, magnetometer, and GPS.
Chip companies join the fray
At this year’s CES, big guns in the chip industry -- such as Intel and Qualcomm -- revealed that they, too, want a piece of the drone action, which seems poised to boom.
Intel demos drones using RealSense
By using its own RealSense technology, Intel demonstrated drones that can build 3D maps of their surroundings and automatically adjust — like bats — to avoid objects.
Qualcomm showed off a drone that can see in 3D, drive and fly. Based on the Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset, Snapdragon Cargo features an integrated flight controller capable of wireless communications, sensor integration and spatial positioning.
Dark clouds looming?
Hanging over the drone industry’s heads, however, are pending drone regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). An act passed by Congress in 2012 requires the FAA to complete rules for non-military drones in U.S. airspace by 2015. But the FAA, struggling with technological, regulatory, and managerial barriers, is taking a “measured” approach. Drones are harder to regulate than conventional aircraft because they vary in size and functions.
Complicating the matter further, drone innovations are mounting much faster than the regulatory process.
Critics say that strict regulations could put the nascent drone industry in danger of grinding to a halt. However, if the panel discussion on drones at CES is any indications both drone entrepreneurs and government officials appear to agree that what they want is not “no regulations.” Rather, they want a framework with “simplicity and clarity,” as described by Tony Carmean, a founding partner and the chief marketing officer for Aerial MOB.
Carmean, responsible for developing unmanned aerial cinematography for the Aerial MOB business model, played a key role in the company's successful bid to become one of the first to receive an FAA exemption to use unmanned aircraft for closed-set film productions.
Following are key questions on current and future drone regulations raised by the panel and the audience, with some answers by the panelists.