The decision to hold a virtual Commercial UAV Expo Americas event was entirely due to the threat of COVID-19. This microscopic organism, which contains a molecule that resembles a crown (corona in Latin), has brought humanity to its knees and the drone industry is no exception. The big difference, however, is that the drone industry is uniquely equipped to help and to make a difference. The plenary panel, “The Economic Impact of a Pandemic and a Path Forward,” discussed its impact on the industry.
The session was moderated by Michael Blades, VP Aerospace, Defense and Security at Frost and Sullivan and included the following panelists:
- Matt Dunlevy, CEO & Chairman, SkySkopes
- Ian Smith, CEO, Ware
- Tom Walker, Founder & CEO, DroneUp
- Grant Guillot, Partner, Adams & Reese LLP
Blades began the session by introducing the panelists and then asking them to say a few words about the job they do and how it has been impacted by the virus.
Guillot, from Adams & Reese, began by stating that the FAA has done a good job of issuing more waivers and accelerating its processes in a very difficult environment.
“The FAA is in charge of safety, not only innovation, so imagine the pressure to add unmanned vehicles to the National Airspace (NAS) while maintaining the current levels of safety,” he stated. “They have done a great job in issuing more waivers to prove the viability of delivering packages in the middle of a pandemic. They have used Part 107 in a very creative way to allow the industry to move forward and help COVID-19 relief efforts.”
Walker, from DroneUp, came next in which he made an important point about the difference between Part 107 and Part 135.
“We can do Part 107 deliveries today if we stay away from products and routes that belong to the Part 135 certification,” he explained. “Let’s think Part 135 for transportation and Part 107 for delivery. The FAA is very engaged right now, so let’s explore what can be done with Part 107 to help distribution of goods during the pandemic.”
“Unmanned applications for COVID-19-related issues will grow in the next few months,” Dunlevy, from SkySkopes, added. “From deliveries of medicines to disinfecting large areas, the economic impact of the pandemic in the economy in general and the niche economy of drones in particular, will be enormous. We’ve seen an increase in interest for application of disinfectants, especially Hydrogen Peroxide, inside certain large venues to prevent the spread of the virus. This is only a small sample of the thousand different ways in which UAVs can help slow the spread of the pandemic.”
Smith, from Ware, then explained how his company had been affected by the pandemic.
“All our services are indoors and, therefore, we don’t have to deal with the FAA and we have seen an enormous increase in demand for what we do,” he said. “A lot of companies are invoking the ‘force majeure’ clause in their insurance contracts and hiring our services to avoid human intervention in some of their warehouse processes. As you can imagine, with online shopping and the distribution implications of these purchases, the demand for warehouses to be more efficient has grown exponentially, and the potential for human workers to be exposed has also grown with a potential shutdown of the entire operation if just one individual tests positive for the virus. All of this activity is happening behind the scenes and in GPS-denied environments. We don’t have to deal with the FAA, but we have to face some amazing challenges too.”
“After Covid-19 we are not going back to ‘normal’ FAA behavior,” Walker concluded. “We’re still trying to digest all the data coming from these recent applications of unmanned platforms, but it will surely support the addition of more use cases.”
Dunlevy then jumped in to provide an example from his own industry.
“More powerline inspections are happening because pilots and mechanics are in quarantine and therefore, helicopter operations have been reduced considerably,” he explained. “New applications are popping up every day, and companies are taking advantage of the waiver program to add unmanned operations to their daily workflows.”
“With the pandemic, wildfires in the West coast, and two major hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, the USA needs more unmanned operations,” Guillot added. “There’s been an increase in interest in using UAVs to avoid congregations and gatherings and that has contributed in containing the pandemic in certain geographies. The pandemic has given the UAV industry the opportunity to contribute to contact-less applications and that, in turn, has helped score points with the public. It has given the industry the rare opportunity to prove how good UAVs are in certain functions.”
Blades ended the session by adding that the economic impact of the pandemic on the UAV industry has been different than other industries, because it has given it the opportunity to prove what we can do for the community in times of isolation and high risk of contagion.