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NEW YORK (MainStreet — Speak to civil libertarians and the Wikileaks crowd, and the nightmare scenario you get about drones is how we are in impending danger of being transformed into a police state, with Big Brother watching over us with these flying robots.

Speak to members of the drone industry, however, and you get a totally different nightmare scenario—that the U.S. is falling behind on the huge business opportunity in the civilian applications of drones and losing out on thousands of jobs and revenues as a consequence.

While military drones occupy much of the public consciousness and media attention, what has gone by largely unnoticed is the major change about to happen in the skies above people in the U.S. This stems from a decision by the federal government in 2012 to ask the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to integrate Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System (NAS). Devoid of the three-letter acronym soup, it simply means getting civilian drones to fly around U.S. skies along with an American Airlines, United or Southwest.

Deadline 2015

In response, the FAA has set out a roadmap for integration by 2015 and has taken steps—critics say baby steps—toward granting certification for limited flying in civilian airspace as it tries to sort out the safety issues and implications of drones flying alongside their manned counterparts. Commercial drone manufacturers can currently only get certifications for experimental purposes. Even if they were to sell their products to operators, the latter are not authorized to fly them on a commercial basis.

Nelson Paez, CEO of DreamHammer, a Santa Monica-based startup specializing in UAS software, emphasized the urgency of moving fast.

"It's really critical that Americans,who invented this technology, use it first," he said. "The problem as usual is that the government needs to move fast for innovation to occur."

The tone of stridency is justifiable—there are around 2,400 Yamaha RMAX helicopters flying around in Japan, being almost exclusively used in agriculture. The Japanese are not newcomers to this game—Yamaha developed its first unmanned helicopter, the R-50 way back in 1987. Just ask Detroit what happens when you ignore Japanese competition.

The competition for civilian uses of drones is in fact worldwide. In China, parcel service SF Express is using drones to deliver cakes in Shanghai and local authorities seem to have a much more relaxed view of regulations than the FAA. In India, a university-incubated startup called Ideaforge developed a UAS called Netra, which was used successfully for disaster management in recent floods that swept a state in the Himalayan foothills. German drone maker microdronesGmBH has offices worldwide including in countries like Australia, Saudi Arabia, and Taiwan—and civilian applications are top of the list.

What does this mean for US industry?

70,000 Jobs and Counting

Underlining the importance of industry to the US economy is a report from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). It estimates that 70,000 jobs would be created in the next three years alone, with the number increasing to 100,000 by 2025. The report projects that every year that the NAS integration is delayed the economy could lose more than $10 billion in economic impact. While industry associations are prone to overstating their case, there can be no denying the wide range of civilian applications across sectors like agriculture, public safety, environment management, logistics, and media and entertainment. The AUVSI estimates the annual sales in the US market could reach 160,000 units in a few years.

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Soft Power

However there is a big piece of the puzzle still missing from this picture. This discussion of the UAS market is exclusively hardware-centric—what about the software that goes into controlling these systems? Where are the iOS and Android equivalents in the drone market?

This is the opportunity being addressed by "Drone OS" like Ballista from DreamHammer. Having sold in the past almost exclusively to military customers the company is pushing for a civilian drone revolution. "Think of where PC's or mobile phones would be if they relied only on government innovation," Paez says. "Part of what has kept drones from exploding in the market is that it's in the government's hands and their Industrial base." Pointing to the inevitable trend in technology progression he points out, "As soon as we brought jet engines, GPS, nuclear energy, etc. to the commercial market, they became widely adapted and completely integrated in our lives."

As more UAS enter the civilian market, there will be a need for increasingly sophisticated software to operate them—including different drones working together to complete a single task. The software must be easy to integrate, built on open standards, and allow a human operator to control the UAS from a COTS hardware like a laptop, tablet, or mobile phone. At the same time, the software must comply with stringent safety and software protocols laid down by regulators like the FAA or its European counterpart the EASA.

In addition to the operating system providers there is a huge market opportunity for specialized software providers like Trimble's Inpho software for aerial photogrammetry and Horizonmp for ground control software. Companies like AdaCore, which provide a commercial flavor of Ada, a programming language used widely in defense applications, are also focusing on the civil UAS opportunity.

The Larger Drone Family

Making things even more interesting is the fact that while the UAS market is where the focus seems to be it is not the only drone market. Drones come in land-based and maritime versions as well. The most famous land-based drone is perhaps Google's driverless car. Currently based around the commercially popular Toyota Prius, experts estimate that Google has had to cram in some $100,000 worth of sensors and software to make a self-driving version. While the project is currently managed under Google's secretive Google X division, it's not hard to see how Google plans to commercialize the technology. It recently bought a $258 million stake in high-end car hire company Uber, so "robo-taxis" could not be very far away. Mercedes Benz, Toyota, and Nissan are also pursuing self-driven cars so this segment could see a lot of acceleration.

The maritime cousins of UAS go by their own three-letter acronym USVs, or Unmanned Surface Vehicles. While USV projects have tended to progress at a slower rate than UAS counterparts, the market is just as huge, including in the civilian domain. French company ECA Robotics's USV is optimized for hydrographic surveys and inspections while Proteiis a Kickstarter-funded project that aims to create an open source-based USV for oil spill management. DreamHammer is taking its support to USVs much deeper, literally, with its strategic alliance with Ocean Aero, manufacturer of the Submaran, an unmanned underwater surface vessel (UUSV). Powered by wind and solar energy the Submaran it can be equipped with an array of sensors for a variety of applications ranging from the military to civil.

Flying into the Future

So what will the brave new world of civilian drones look like in a decade or so, and will the U.S. command a leadership position in the market? Chris Anderson, founder of UAS start-up 3D Robotics, interviewed legendary FedEx founder Fed Smith four years back and found his vision compelling. According to Smith, unmanned cargo freighters designed specifically with no humans on board could be safer, cheaper and carry more cargo than their manned counterparts today. That would have a fundamental impact on the business dynamics with air cargo's premium over sea falling from the current levels of 10x to 2x.

As 2015 nears all the participants are looking on with a great sense of expectation around the most important battle that drones will fight. Thankfully, it will be a bloodless one and create more winners than losers.

--Written by Preetam Kaushik for MainStreet