Drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or remote-control flying robots, have evolved from recreational novelties to business essentials. With capabilities that range from delivery to surveillance, along with unprecedented levels of efficiency, the growth of commercial drones is inevitable.

At the same time, the safe and secure operation (or lack, thereof) of both commercial and recreational drones is a valid concern.

These are some of the drone trends you can expect to see in 2020.

Drones and Drugs

The pharmaceutical industry is poised to take advantage of drone delivery services. “This is the year of major leaps in social acceptance of drone delivery, for at least prescription drugs and minor purchases from certain retail pharmacies and stores,” said Taqee Khaled, director of strategy at Nerdery.

He also expects to see drone “bundles” piloted between leading pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens. “I imagine some of the big pharma companies are already proposing drone exclusive delivery for certain very high cost and/or life-saving drugs as well.”

In September, 2019, Walgreens announced a pilot program with Alphabet’s Wings to deliver over-the-counter meds. In October, 2019, CVS Pharmacy and AmerisourceBergen announced agreements with UPS to deliver pharmaceuticals using drones. Khaled believes that these partnership announcements are major endorsements of the use of drone technology.

“At the same time, no drone advancements will be made at full scale — we’ll only see continued test markets in 2020,” Khaled said. And since this process is still being developed, he warns that there will be several accidents and incorrect deliveries.

Other Industries Benefitting from Drones

However, the pharmaceutical industry isn’t the only sector using drones. According to Jason Braverman, CTO at SkyX, the main verticals being serviced by commercial drones are agriculture, construction, exploration and GIS mapping. “As we push to 2020, verticals like midstream oil & gas (pipelines), rail and border surveillance will benefit greatly from implementing commercial drones into their monitoring ecosystem,” he said.

“These verticals are currently going through a widespread digital transformation, and precise high-quality visual data coming from drones is giving these organizations the ability to see things like never before.”

Companies like PINC make warehouse drones that can digitally check inventory, and this type of automated cycle counting will only increase in 2020. These robots are not only accurate and fast, but also navigate the hard-to-reach areas that are potentially dangerous to human workers.

“Drone detection systems will likely become a standard and best practice for critical infrastructure, large gathering areas, correctional facilities, and other high risk assets,” said John Bekisz, Jr., owner and operator at UAS Vues.

Emergence and Growth of Companies — and Individuals

You can also expect a lot of movement behind the scenes. “Recently introduced legislation in Congress would end grants for drones manufactured in countries — cough, China — where data leaks would damage national security,” said Lt. Col. Jeremy Latchaw, founder of Macatawa Unmanned Systems. And he believes this will open the door for American companies. “For example, Skydio already has the drone world wondering if it will cut into significant market share with its Skydio 2.”

Another trend Latchaw predicts: mergers and acquisitions among startups in the drone space.

“Some of the larger firms have already started; for example, Aerodyne Group recently bought the drone services of Measure.”

However, not everyone is merging, and 2020 will also provide opportunities for small businesses. In fact, Chris Anderson, owner of The Drone Trainer, predicts that 2020 will see the resurrection of the individual drone service provider. “Over the past couple of years, there have been a few organizations that have looked to capitalize on the Uber model by dispatching drone pilots from around the globe to their jobs of choice.”

While companies are making massive profits, Anderson said there aren’t many drone pilots earning a lot of money — and they’re now finding jobs on their own. “Is there one single company that controls and dispatches every plumber, wedding photographer or painter, for example? The answer is no.”

So, Anderson predicts there will be more stories in 2020 from drone pilots who were able to find success in local niche markets.

Drone Technology Tools

Drones will also play a greater role in public safety and disaster response. “Augmented Reality for drones will greatly enhance on-board camera capabilities, especially for first responders,” said Latchaw. He noted that companies like Responder Air and Eddgybees offer augmented reality software that allows geospatial map overlays within the drone’s camera video output.

“It provides the operator with more information, such as addresses, road names and the ability to make notes within the virtual map.” And in a disaster like a flood, Latchaw said the software can reveal roads that are covered with water.

He also expects more brands to integrate thermal and RGB camera capabilities into their platforms. “This will allow for features such as FLIR’s (MSX) Multi-Spectral Dynamic Imaging capabilities in which the thermal image overlays the visual picture.”

One restriction of drones is the limited amount of time that they can fly. (Although, this isn’t a problem for Walgreens, which has stated that its average customer lives within a five-mile radius). However, Latchaw expects delivery duration changes in 2020 as well.

“As the FAA works with companies to develop beyond visual line of sight operations, the drones will need to fly longer.” And he said that many companies will release and increase research into hydrogen-powered drones. For instance, HES Energy Systems has integrated aerial fuel cells that allow its Hycopter to fly up to 3.5 hours.

Drone Legislation and Regulations

Don’t expect to see any drone legislation enacted in 2020. “Congress traditionally includes its drone-related laws in FAA-related funding legislation, and no such bill is expected since the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 provides funding until 2023,” explained Caroline Gentry, chair of the UAS practice at Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP.

“The 2020 election also makes it unlikely that any proposed drone legislation would gain sufficient support from lawmakers.”

However, she said there are some circumstances that might change that scenario. “For example, if lawmakers were to introduce a stand-alone bill on FAA safety in the wake of the Boeing 737 Max crashes, or if a collision between a drone and a manned aircraft were to cause fatalities.”

However, Congress has directed the FAA to issues several regulations and standards, and Gentry said some of the results will be seen in 2020. “Major issues that are under review include remote identification standards, rules governing drone operations over people and at night, rules for recreational operators, flight restrictions near critical infrastructure facilities, and unmanned traffic management (UTM) systems.”

In fact, she’s tracking these developments:

  • The FAA is expected to issue a Notice of Public Rulemaking (NPRM) regarding the remote identification of drones on December 20, 2019. This proposed rule has been postponed a few times already and it could be again, although this topic is a high priority for the FAA. If the NPRM is delayed, it will almost certainly be issued in 2020.

  • In February 2019, the FAA issued a NPRM regarding drone operations over people and at night. The FAA is currently reviewing public comments on that proposed rule. It is reasonable to expect that the FAA will issue its final rule in 2020.

  • In February 2019, the FAA issued an Advance Notice of Public Rulemaking (ANPRM) regarding the safe and secure operations of drones. This is a broad topic that covers multiple issues, including stand-off distances (i.e., a required amount of space between a drone and a person or object), unmanned traffic management (UTM) systems, and mission-critical drone systems that currently are not redundant or fail-safe. The FAA predicts that it will finish reviewing comments by May 2020. It is therefore possible that the FAA will issue a NPRM on these issues by the end of 2020.

  • In February 2019, the FAA issued an interim final rule regarding an external marking requirement for drones. This interim rule became effective immediately. It is anticipated to become a final rule in October 2020.

  • The FAA predicts that by September 2020, it will issue a NPRM regarding drone flight restrictions near critical infrastructure facilities.

  • The FAA is working to develop new rules governing recreational drone operators, now that Congress has repealed a 2012 law that largely prevented the FAA from regulating these operations. Earlier this year the FAA issued interim guidance, and it recently announced the formation of an advisory group. Given the importance of this issue, we hope to see at least an Advanced Notice of Public Rulemaking sometime in 2020.

  • In 2016, Congress directed the FAA to pass a regulation requiring drone manufacturer safety statements to be provided to consumers. While the FAA has not yet issued such a regulation, it encourages drone manufacturers to provide these statements voluntarily. We may see some movement on this issue in 2020.