Big IT vendors mostly mum on commercial drone plans

Reports say FAA could take very hard line on commercial drone use

drone with gopro digital camera mounted underneath   22 april 2013
Credit: Don McCullough/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Word that the Federal Aviation Administration might take a very hard line on commercial drone use has those with designs on such activity nervous. But as for big enterprise IT vendors, it's really hard to tell what they think because they're keeping any plans in this field very hush-hush.

The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the FAA -- tasked by Congress with coming up with rules next year -- is very likely to require operators of commercial drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles/unmanned aircraft systems) to have actual licenses that include manned aircraft experience. Other restrictions on those who might want to use UAVs/UASs take aerial photos of real estate property, cover news events or monitor agricultural or other properties could include operation only in daylight hours, line-of-site operation and flying only below 400 feet.

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The reality is that plenty of organizations, such realtors and universities, are already using lightweight drones like those fro DJI and Parrot, for commercial purposes. Yes, they're taking a calculated legal risk. But the thinking goes that these often camera-equipped flying machines are pretty idiot-proof to operate and that the FAA really doesn't have the manpower or wherewithal to crack down on every operator.

I've reached out to about a dozen traditional enterprise IT vendors over the past couple of weeks to find out if any of them have designs on getting into the commercial drone business. Not necessarily building quadcopters or hexacopters, or even hatching ambitious plans like those of Amazon to deliver packages or Google/Facebook to extend Internet reach. But rather, leveraging their IT smarts to digest the reams of data that sensor-equipped drones will collect or extending their IT management technology to include drone controls.

I've been surprised though at the general lack of response to my inquiries. And we're talking about the types of companies -- IBM, HP, Red Hat -- that are typically eager to share their thoughts with our readers on almost any topic.

One company that did reply -- Microsoft -- surprised me by affirming that it "is not actively pursuing any projects in this area, so we can't help at this time."

Others, such as Cisco and Bell Labs, said they were looking into whether they have anyone to discuss the subject.

I asked former FAA trial attorney Mark Dombroff, co-chair of the UAS Practice Group at international law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP in McLean, Va., if he's seen any interest by such companies in the commercial drone field. He would probably know: His firm represents organizations looking to get exemptions from the FAA to use or experiment with commercial drones (one example: a big insurance company interested in using drones for risk/catastrophe assessment).

But Dombroff says he has not heard of any such companies, aside from Google, active in this space. And he isn't sure what they are waiting for since the queue of those seeking exemptions has grown steadily, especially after a handful of movie making companies were granted permission in September.

"I have a hard time believing they don't have some sort of programs in place," he says, citing the possibilities for data collection and assessment in a business projected to be worth tens of billions of dollars over the course of the next 10 years. He notes that insurance companies aren't necessarily looking at drones as a very near-term opportunity, but rather are eyeing where they want to be positioned in 10 to 15 years. "They see this technology as something that's here to stay and not just a novelty," he says.

Dombroff says if he was working for IT companies he would be looking to get approval to research uses for UASs on their own properties and trying to figure out which industries and organizations to partner with on this front.

It's possible that the big tech companies are biding their time, with plans to snap up drone startups that have become darlings of the venture capital industry in recent years despite regulatory uncertainty. But Dombroff (who blogs here) warns that startups could fall by the wayside once they realize just how regulated an industry aviation is -- a realization that should become quite apparent over the next 24 or so months.

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