The 'Search For The Fantastic' issue of Dronin' On 11.17.18

Stan Lee – photo Wiki Commons

You get a little older and you can’t bother with fairy tales and monster stories anymore, but I don’t think you ever outgrow your love for things that are fantastic, that are bigger than you are—the giants or the creatures from other planets or people with superpowers who can do things you can’t.

Stan Lee in Playboy


Hi all –

Let me start by wishing everyone impacted by the California fires and the East Coast storms the joy of Thanksgiving. May your autonomous vehicle take you safely through the snow to Grandma’s. And may you avoid any conversation more contentious than red or white. I am going to take the week off, so your next issue of Dronin’ On will be Saturday, December 1st.

Not much news this week. A quick look at the FAA, It’s A Drone – No It’s A Liability, Big Business, Tail Wags Dog and a real Moonshot.


Sen. John Thune (R-SD) will replace John Cornyn (R-TX) as the Majority Whip. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) will chair Commerce. On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) is now in a manual recount with Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL). Nothing new from the White House about an FAA Administrator.


A lot of comments last week about the DOT OIG FAA Waiver audit. If you missed the report, it’s here. Now the OIG is turning their attention to LAANC:

Given the significant safety implications associated with integrating UAS operations throughout the NAS, we are initiating an audit assessing FAA’s role in authorizing small UAS operations. Our objectives for this self-initiated audit are to assess: (1) the impact of LAANC on FAA’s review and approval of UAS airspace requests; and (2) FAA’s procedures for coordinating and communicating UAS airspace approvals and notifications between airports, FAA air traffic facilities, LAANC service suppliers, and UAS operators.

Remember that LAANC is a beta test. Per the FAA :

The National Beta test of LAANC commenced on April 30, 2018 and will last throughout 2018. The beta seeks to test the capability nationwide; the results will inform future expansions of the capability.”

The OIG seems to be suggesting that there is a lot that can be done to make it more (sufficiently?) robust.


These five articles offer insights into the wide range of liabilities and exposures that are now taking shape in the UAS world.

Let’s begin with insurance – something I once expected to write much more about. This post in Plane-ly Spoken merits attention as an example of how hard the concrete already is: UAS: Drones Are Airplanes: Check Your Insurance Policy!

According to court filings, Holly Cal Production, a company that provides photography services, had purchased a liability insurance policy with a $1 million per occurrence coverage limit.  Holly Cal was using the drone to take pictures and video at a wedding when an accident occurred.  According to conflicting reports, either the drone was flown into a bystander or the bystander walked into the drone when it was flying at eye level.  The bystander suffered a serious eye injury that required surgery, and ultimately resulted in the loss of vision in one of her eyes.

Regardless of these factual disputes over how the accident happened, the insurance company declined the claim.  As it turns out, the policy contains an exclusion expressly stating that it does not cover bodily injury arising out of the ownership, operation or use of an aircraft.  In addition, the policy also excluded coverage for bodily injury arising out of any “object propelled, whether intentionally or unintentionally into a crowd by or at the direction of a participant or insured.”  Counsel for Holly Cal has disputed this interpretation, claiming that the exclusion is only intended to apply to manned aircraft, and does not apply to a drone equipped with a camera.

In response, the insurer has correctly pointed out in its motion papers that, pursuant to  49 U.S.C. § 40102, 14 C.F.R. § 1.1, 49 U.S.C. § 40101, and the NTSB’s decision in Huerta v. Pirker, it is now indisputable that an unmanned aircraft is an “aircraft” under the law.  As a result, we fully expect the insurer’s position to be vindicated in court, and a ruling that there is no coverage for the accident. [emphasis mine]

Now let’s consider how that plays against the ULC Drone Tort hypothesis that drones are different than airplanes.

The ease of access to unmanned aircraft technology, the scale at which drones are already operating, and the low altitude airspace in which these aircraft must operate, all suggest that a uniform law for per se aerial trespass is necessary.

As I wrote after the Detroit meeting, it appears that the ULC is abandoning the ‘per se’ idea. Nevertheless, it seems that the question of whether a drone an aircraft (or how is a drone is like an airplane and how it is not) will be argued much more frequently than anyone ever imagined.

Which leads to another ULC backwater, AirMap. sUAS advocate Ryan LaTourette recently posted Inaccuracies Place YOU at Risk! You Can’t Afford to Trust AirMap:

Operators should expect the application they are using will delineate the location of nearby airports, temporary area flight restrictions, along with class of airspace and airport contact information.  Users understand that inaccuracies of such data have legal consequences that place themselves, their UAS, and manned aircraft in the vicinity at risk. [emphasis mine]

In the article LaTourette documents a number of mistakes – I have no idea how exhaustive the analysis was, or how extensive the problem really is. Interesting that he brings it around to Greg McNeal’s role in ULC.

AirMap’s co-founder advocates for local governments each creating their own drone ordinances and the patchwork of rules and regulations would leave drone operators in a constant wonder of where and when they can fly.  Drone operators would require a resource to be able to make such determinations – an application that could be a one-stop shop for recognition of the rules based upon the location. [authors emphasis]

AirMap would be in position to become a pay to play gateway into the first 200 feet of the NAS.  AirMap’s challenges noted here of failures to accurately display some of the absolute most important flight restrictions then become even more onerous.  Should such a model come about, drone operators would be paying for necessary information which may not be accurate and could lead to hefty enforcement penalties or even arrest. . [emphasis mine]

Lest you think I am piling on, AirMap has obviously been putting in some effort here, Microsoft ‘Solidifies’ Azure Cloud For Drones focuses on the MSFT and AirMap relationship.

The connection between Microsoft Azure cloud and AirMap’s airspace management platform is hoped to create technology that will allow state and local authorities to authorize drone flights and enforce local rules and restrictions on how and when they can be operated.

Finally one other issue that is all too often ignored, Food Delivery Drones Are Annoying Residents in Australia Because…of Course!

Food delivery drones operating in Canberra, Australia, are driving some locals to distraction with their high-pitched buzzing noise.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports that a trial of fast food deliveries had recently been launched in a suburb of Australia’s capital by a company called Wing. Wing is an initiative from Alphabet X, Google’s parent company. Anyone living within 6 miles (10 km) of a delivery base in Bonython, is now eligible to have certain types of fast food flown directly to their door.

The drones fly between the hours of 7 am and 4 pm but residents have complained that once they wake up, they cannot get back to sleep. 500 people have already signed a petition calling for the drones to be banned.

One campaigner against the drones said that 80 percent of people she had spoken to in her neighbourhood were against the drones and their number one concern was privacy. 

I don’t know how large the sample was, probably a handful of people, but the number is consistent with the higher range reported in other studies.

It is going to take some time for all this to work its way through state and local government and ultimately, the courts. Still it is very clear that UAS operations and services need to proceed carefully.


AUVSI Unmanned Systems Magazine – click to read

















While the feeding frenzy has subsided, there is a surprising amount of investment activity going on in the sUAS and UAS space.The AUVSI publication Unmanned Systems dedicated the entire issue to startups including From Saturation to Consolidation: Drone Industry Expansion Leads to Acquisitions, Partnerships:

Annual investment in drone technology surged to more than $1 billion in 2017, compared with $170.9 million in 2014, $554.2 million in 2015 and $858 million in 2016, according to Pitchbook. Van Espahbodi, managing partner of consulting firm and venture fund Starburst Accelerator, tracks these investments to observe which UAS companies mature and thrive and which might pique the interest of larger corporations looking to innovate.

“Realistically, there are over 3,000 drone startups in the world today, of which I’d estimate 200 are cutting edge and relevant to the existing industry, of which I’d argue 10-15 are valued above $10 million.” 

Starburst represents large corporations like Boeing, Raytheon and General Atomics, and through a selection process, narrows their search for potential investments into and acquisitions of UAS companies that can offer some synergy with their portfolios.

“Think of it as an externalization of research and product development for large corporations and a bootcamp for how to pressure cook small companies into hyper growth,” Espahbodi says.

The rapid investment of capital in the unmanned aircraft industry is shifting market focus from saturation to consolidation, as large companies seek to absorb smaller, more nimble ones and smaller companies seek partnerships to offer
compelling products.

Commercial Drone Professional trumpets Exclusive Research: £170m Injected Into Drone Industry This Year as Investors Clamour for a Piece of the Market.

The value of the top 10 largest investments in the drone industry during 2018 exceeds more than £170m, according to exclusive research carried out by Commercial Drone Professional.

The scale of funds injected into the industry demonstrates the growing appetite that private investors have for the drone sector and sets a benchmark that will likely be exceeded in 2019.

…It is this high level of investment that has 
prompted market research analysts to predict that the commercial drone industry will be worth around £1.5bn by 2022.

The Teal Group’s Philip Finnegan writing in Forbes sums up two of the recent headlines, PrecisionHawk, Delair Acquisitions Highlight Growing Importance Of Scale In Drone Industry.

PrecisionHawk’s acquisition of Uplift Data Partners, its fifth in nine months, highlights the emerging consolidation of the drone industry as companies seek to build scale in a rapidly evolving market.

PrecisionHawk and Delair are two of the largest commercial drone companies, and both are pursuing strategies that involve organic and acquisitive growth.

Scale is key,” stresses Benjamin Benharrosh, co-founder of Delair. “You need size to have a worldwide footprint.”

Flyability co-founders Dr. Adrien Briod and Patrick Thevoz – photo courtesy Flyability

Next, Swiss favorite Flyability Raises 11 Million USD to Build the Future of Indoor Autonomous Inspection

Flyability announces the closing of its 11M USD Series B, bringing the total amount raised by the company to 16M USD since its founding in 2014… Pioneer and market leader of the indoor drone space, Flyability counts more than 350 customers and 500+ drones in the field, cumulating thousands of flight hours. 

Flyability notes that their client, Dow Chemical, participated in the round.

screen grab from YouTube – courtesy of Skycatch – click to watch

Komatsu to Distribute Skycatch Solution Globally is the next step in a story I’ve been tracking since 2015. Skycatch founder and CEO Christian Sanz (@csanz) has been at this a good long time – Skycatch will mark its sixth anniversary in February. Unlike many, Chris has chosen to stay under the radar while securing US$46M in venture funding, and more recently, forging a deep relationship with DJI Enterprise.

I like to think of this as CNC for construction sites with drones providing the data (fully-automated site preparation service) and automated heavy equipment doing the cutting. The genesis of the idea is said to have been the shortage of labor to construct facilities for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Equipment World adds some details, Komatsu Bringing the Skycatch Drones Powering Work at Its Automated Japanese Jobsites to U.S. There is also additional background about Komatsu’s ‘Smart Construction’ offering here. There is also a good story from Guinn Partners here. Any time that a client becomes a business partner, you have to think that the company is doing a lot of things right.


concept rendering courtesy of NASA

On the surface, NextNav Tech to Help NASA Track Drones and Air Taxis seems like an important advance. It’s certainly a very interesting company.

NextNav uses a metropolitan beacon system (MBS) that uses a network of terrestrial satellites to provide precise locations without potential interference from localized weather or GPS outages. As the FAA, NASA and other organizations responsible for the national airspace system grapple with the coming expansion of low-flying unmanned vehicles and the efforts of companies such as Uber to implement urban mobility projects (to which NASA is no stranger), one of the major obstacles to overcome is the tracking of that increased traffic. That is an especially difficult task in cities and at low altitudes where traditional solutions like radar, GPS and ADS-B are unreliable or insufficient.

Think about this:

The FAA estimates there will be over 700,000 drones delivering packages and performing other tasks by 2022.

Imagine that. 700,000 drones delivering packages… Before we have flight over people, Remote ID and BVLOS rules, standards and certifications? If you missed it take a look at Jonathan Rupprecht’s Uber’s Drone Delivery Problems (Law
& Economics)

Still, solving the GPS problem is a big deal. But wait, there’s more.

Because Uber and Bell plan to scale their on-demand mobility venture from a soft opening to nationwide operations by the following year, the need to precisely track vehicles moving throughout city airspace is imminent. 

Now check out the link in the previous paragraph, Uber Eyes Regulation Changes to Facilitate Air Taxi Plans. It is pretty startling:

Speaking at the Air Traffic Control Association’s annual conference in Maryland, Tom Prevot, Uber’s director of airspace systems told the no doubt spellbound audience that:

Uber projects takeoffs and landings from its vertiports every 24 seconds, which would require a considerable reduction in the current minimum-distance standards of 1,000 feet vertically or 3 to 5 nm horizontally, according to FAA order JO 7110.65.

Man, that is an awesome adoption curve. So I was very relieved to read that:

While pilots will be a necessity, both Prevot… stressed that they still wanted to automate as much of the process as possible.

“I think the aircraft are going to be pretty automated and run from the fleet automation center,” Prevot said. If “the vehicles get disconnected, they have to find a safe landing spot. (We need to have) contingencies in mind.”

Prevot did note the importance of being careful as they try to develop this new industry and make it interoperable with the existing federal airspace.

“We can mess this up quickly if we don’t make safety and security paramount.”

Ya think?

Zipline Gen 2 – courtesy of Zipline

A whole lot closer to earth, Zipline made it into TIME’s Best Inventions 2018 with the note that “Zipline recently started testing emergency medical-supply delivery in the U.S. and will start regular service in North Carolina early next year.”  Which we know to be one of several UAS IPP sites where Zipline and Matternet are testing delivery services.


Dragon is a free-flying spacecraft designed to deliver both cargo and people – courtesy NASA

GeekWire has a story about a really big idea…

FCC OKs SpaceX’s Plan for 7,500 Satellites in Very Low Earth Orbit (and Its
Rivals’ Plans)

SpaceX’s plan to put 7,518 V-band satellites in 215-mile-high (345.6-kilometer-high) orbits meshes with a complementary plan to put more than 4,400 satellites in higher orbits for Ku- and Ka-band service. Last week, SpaceX filed an amended application seeking to put 1,584 of those satellites into 342-mile orbits instead of the originally specified 715-mile orbits.

The different orbital altitudes are meant to provide a mix of wide-angle and tightly focused transmission beams for global broadband access. SpaceX could start offering satellite internet services as soon as 2020, if all goes according to plan and the company sticks to its launch schedule.

Just think – you will never leave Alexa and Siri. But here is the important thing
to know:

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell has noted the market for telecommunications services is dramatically bigger than the market for launch services, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said satellite service revenue would help fund his vision of building a city on Mars.

Just to put a bow on it, GeekWire reports that “SpaceX sent the Es’hail-2 telecommunications satellite into orbit today, then brought the Falcon 9 rocket’s first-stage booster back down for an at-sea landing.” Fantastic!

Thanks for reading and for sharing. Back issues of Dronin’ On are here.


Christopher Korody
Editor and Publisher
follow me @dronewriter


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