GoogleX, GoPro, Amazon Prime Air join new sUAV Coalition

By Luke Geiver | November 20, 2014

Don’t let the name fool you, the small UAV Coalition consists of several huge members. Formed earlier this year, the sUAV Coalition represents several manufacturers, operators, payload providers and software developers including: Google[X], Amazon Prime Air, GoPro, Parrot, DJI Innovations, Airware and 3DR. Even the coalition’s Executive Director, Michael Drobac, comes with a bio formed from big industry. Prior to his current role with the coalition, Drobac was the head of government affairs for Netflix.

Drobac was approached by current members to form and lead an effort to voice the perspectives and concerns of small UAV firms. Although Drobac and others recognized the role of high-member count groups already representing unmanned aerial systems affiliated companies, the coalition saw an opportunity for a new group to become the sole and unique voice for small commercial UAVs. The main goal of the coalition, Drobac said, is to advance the regulatory environment that will support safe, reliable and timely operation of small UAVs.

To achieve that goal, a multi-member team lead by Drobac has been traveling across the U.S. and the U.K. to present on the coalition’s goals. The team has also been vocal regarding industry announcements and happenings by issuing press releases and statements on everything from U.S. Federal Aviation Administration decisions to calls for advisory boards. “Our mission is fairly simple,” Drobac said of the team’s work to advance the regulatory framework for sUAV’s into the U.S. national airspace. “I wish it didn’t have to be what it is.”

Although Drobac and his members are excited for the future of the industry, progress that will move the industry into mainstream commercialization mode is not happening fast enough. “I think the debate that is going around now is not allowing the industry to grow as it should,” he said. According to Drobac, the members believe sUAVs should not be put under the guise of aviation regulation. “We view the industry as operators and devices rather than pilots and aircrafts. There is so much aviation think to a technology that is not aviation in our view. You can’t apply a different paradigm to a new business,” he said.

Drobac is particularly displeased with the likelihood that sUAV rules issued by the FAA before the end of the year will contain provisions that inhibit sUAVs from flying out of sight or autonomously. “If they are to be called unmanned aircraft vehicles, you have completely blunted the purpose of them unless you are able to go out beyond the line of sight and have them be highly automated or flown without a pilot’s license,” he said. Drobac and the coalition believe that proven technology should be given the opportunity to prevail, including autonomous-operating software.

“If you have a technology that can provide better efficiencies and create a better consumer experience in a safe way, that is what consumers want,” he said. Because Drobac and his members believe in current technology available for UAS operations, he believes that congress—and someday the FAA—will think differently about the way UAVs are treated in the U.S.

“I predict that next year we won’t be discussing the same roadblocks we are now. We will be talking about the incredible magnitude and impact of UAVs. I always say technology wins. It doesn’t matter who wants to stop it,” he said.

As an example to his claim, Drobac pointed to his time with Netflix. When he first started, the company was all about providing the red envelopes with mailed DVD. The business model changed for the firm overnight, he said, when it realized it could efficiently and effectively stream videos to a consumer via internet. “Think about DVD stores today. How many of them are there now? Technology, when done effectively and safely, wins. I can’t imagine not shopping on Amazon or not banking online or not texting someone.”

Until sUAVs are given full approval in the U.S., Drobac fears some of his member companies will look overseas to grow and establish operations, even as many want to start and flourish in the U.S. due to its vast market potential. Drobac said his team will continue advocating for quicker implementation and approval of safe sUAV use to Congress and the FAA. “We have the best members that one could ever imagine that are passionate about this and committed to safety, committed to privacy and that want to be able to test and operate in the U.S. (in places including and outside of FAA-selected test sites). If they can’t, they will operate elsewhere. That is a net loss for U.S. consumers.”