Comparisons have been made between drones and a variety of other technology innovations, ranging from the Internet to the PC. However, the parallels between drones and mobile network technology are especially notable. Both have moved faster than regulation could keep up, both have been built up through incredible generational advancements and both rapidly changed expectations around how data could be transmitted. There’s an argument to be made that drones are in a similar phase as mobile network technology was 20-30 years ago, which could provide some key lessons for the future of drones.

The differences between the technologies are also evident, the most prominent being that cellular networks never had to deal with the kind of safety considerations that come with the potential of a large piece of hardware falling out of the sky. Additionally, the approach the FAA has taken around drone regulation is much different than what the mobile network providers dealt with from the FCC in the 1990s, which was very much focused on issues like interference. That said, similar discussions about security and accessibility were taking place then which are in some ways being repeated today.

If we take a brief look at the history of the development of mobile phone technology and networks, we can see that new performance expectations and regulatory standards are evident at every stage, and the same holds true for drones. Whether or not we’ll see the same kinds of changes as drone technology further develops is a bigger question, but that answer could provide a clue about what we’ll see come together with the technology in the short term and long term.


The Way Things Were

When cell phone technology first appeared, there were two things that defined it. One was the size of the hardware. Jokes are still being made about how humongous early cell phones were, but that aspect of the technology changed in a big way over the years. The other element that defined the technology at this phase was the need to pick a network, which is still true today, although in a much different way.

When cellular phone technology first debuted, there were a wide variety of networks. Today there’s really just CDMA and GSM, but it wasn’t that simple at the beginning. There were different flavors of CDMA. Sprint and AT&T had their own CDMA networks, and there was no interoperability between them. The regulations that were around at the time didn't fit neatly on all devices. That made for a lot of winners and losers, but also a lot of frustrations for consumers.

The way in which the technology was consolidated and simplified could provide a clue as to how such issues will similarly come together in the drone space. Dave St. John-Larkin, Co-Chair of the Unmanned Vehicle Systems Industry Group at Perkins Coie, mentioned that the UAV space is likely to see the same kind of rapid technological innovation and consolidation that helped define the mobile network space.

As an example, we're seeing efforts develop around creating standards for communications originating from a UAV that would alert control towers or manned aircraft to the presence of a UAV,” St. John-Larkin said. “We anticipate further consolidation and standardization of communication platforms and protocols to encourage a consistent and uniform way for UAVs to transmit information about where they are in space and time.”

Right now, a uniform set of technical standards for UAV technologies in individual states and across countries doesn’t exist. It was similar in the early cell phone period, but the consolidation that occurred in that space helped define a set of standards that influenced sensible regulation to stabilize the market. It appears the drone industry is currently going through that exact same type of standardization process, but what lessons from the one the mobile networks went through are applicable to drones?


How Standards Define a Market

Regulation has long been top of mind for UAV operators, and it continues to define how the market for the technology takes shape. Similar priorities and issues existed in the early days of mobile networks when the FCC wanted to make sure the networks weren’t causing interference with one another or any outside system. Once these baseline concerns were addressed, far more nuanced situations could be defined. While Part 107 has created tremendous opportunities with drone technology, the inability to easily conduct certain operations, such as BVLOS, proves that similar baseline concerns have not been addressed.

Nonetheless, there's going to be a similar development of a more standardized and richer set of devices in the regional market with drones. Daniel Ridlon, Co-Chair of the Unmanned Vehicle Systems Industry Group at Perkins Coie, is keeping an eye on a potential segmentation of these standards that could create a separate market for industrial and professional grade UAV technology.

“Right now a lot of commercial UAV operators are using off-the-shelf UAVs that are also marketed to consumers. But as the range of operations commercial operators are allowed to engage in expands, the FAA will likely increasingly require UAVs to meet certain performance standards to conduct those operations, which is the approach we see in the FAA’s latest NPRM on operations over people. As the performance requirements increase, so too will the cost of complying with them, potentially putting the price for compliant UAVs out of the reach of consumers.”

As Ridlon points out, however, there is a tension between the FAA’s traditional approach to regulating aircraft and the UAV industry. “For traditional manufacturers of commercial aircraft, FAA regulations essentially require manufacturers to demonstrate that the chances of an accident occurring as a result of the technology in the aircraft are extremely remote, and will not occur in the life of the aircraft. As a result, the technological development of commercial aircraft is typically incremental and purposefully slow to avoid the introduction of unintended safety issues. That approach is the opposite of what we’re seeing with the UAV industry, where innovation is exponential. So we're seeing this clash between the FAA’s approach toward regulating traditional aircraft and the UAV industry, which behaves more like the consumer electronics industry.”

Few would disagree that drone innovation has outpaced FAA regulation, much of which is the result of the aircraft industry being one of the most heavily regulated industries. The level of engineering certainty that the regulations impose on traditional aircraft manufacturers is unlike almost anything you see anywhere else, and that doesn’t line up with how drones are being introduced to the airspace.

When the mobile industry was at a similar point in their history as drones are now, companies came together to develop standards that enabled the technology and the services they were offering to co-exist with one another. That industry-wide effort is where a parallel with drones could be evident. The current challenges could lead to the development of a standard around not just how drones communicate with one another, but how they can guarantee safety at scale. What altitude should drones operate at? Where should they operate? Those sorts of issues need a regulatory response as well as a technological response, and that response in the mobile network industry defined the future of the market.

These parallels are as notable as they are revealing, but they ultimately lead to that many more questions than they do answers about the future of the drone space.


Is Past Prologue?

Mobile networks enabled a rapid evolution of the protocols that are used for how data is transmitted on a phone. While it’s easy to see a similar process playing out in the UAV space, these developments are inherently different because a regulatory approval process for something new in the drone space will likely go beyond the maintenance of the spectrum space that was necessary in the wireless industry. In other words, the drone technological platform has to be continually evaluated in a way the mobile network technology did not.

That’s just one of the distinctions that make the talk of past being prologue dangerous, but that’s why it’s best to focus on the outcomes instead of the process itself. Once this process played out in the mobile network space, incredible opportunities were opened up for the entire market. Those same types of opportunities are going to be created in the drone space in ways that few are talking about in the present.

“I think what we're going to see in the drone space is a rapid expansion in services,” St. John-Larkin continued. “We'll see the same pathway that we've seen with the creation of the shared economy with things like ride-sharing services and multi-platform cooperation. For instance, you might have multi-purpose UAVs tasked with a leased-based operating arrangement. If that’s the case, the UAV could be tasked with doing one thing in the morning versus the afternoon, and that's totally different.”

That type of opportunity could open up a whole new round of interest and investment in the technology. Once the standardization process has played out, investments that are focused solely on things like services could take shape that will enable sizable growth, just like it did in the mobile wireless space.

How many parallels do or don’t exist between the development of mobile network technology and drones is a topic that can be endlessly debated, but what’s inarguable is how the creation of a technological standard will fuel rapid growth. That’s what happened with mobile network technology, and it will happen in a similar but distinct way with drones.