The Two Big Headwinds Still Facing the Camera Drone Market

After a period of uncertainty and prolonged debate, the Federal Aviation Administration finally clarified the regulations governing consumer and commercial drone use over the summer.

While a few finer wrinkles still need to be ironed out, the general guidelines are clear enough to seemingly open U.S. skies to wider camera drone use. And manufacturers have responded with a new wave of smaller, more intelligent aircraft, such as the Yuneec Breeze, DJI’s Mavic Pro and GoPro’s Karma, that promise to make the products easier than ever to operate safely.

But the drone market still faces two significant hurdles before it can truly become a mass market force in the U.S. and globally.

The first obstacle is privacy-driven legislation aimed at restricting drone use. Sweden’s highest court just issued a very restrictive drone ruling that bars drones with cameras from flying unless for police use or for filmmaking with a permit. In issuing the ruling, the court noted that camera-equipped drones are effective surveillance cameras and hence needed to be curtailed. The ruling makes no exception for journalistic purposes, either. Canada, too, has fairly tough rules for commercial use.

Individual U.S. states, such as Florida and California, are also eying restrictive drone laws on privacy grounds, according to Brendan Schulman, Vice President of Policy and Legal Affairs at DJI. Schulman, who appeared on panel at a PhotoPlus Expo in October to discuss drone policy, noted that the “real legislative action next year” is going to be at the state level as local governments wrestle with how much to balance privacy concerns with the rights of drone pilots.

The second threat is the potential for large commercial drone operators—Amazon, Google, UPS and FedEx—to carve out exclusive use of airspace so that they can implement drone delivery services. Those delivery craft would operate in the same airspace as consumer or commercial photo drones, leading to congestion and possibly collision.

John Goglia, former member of the National Transportation Safety Board and an aviation authority who also spoke on the panel, noted that this threat is more than just theoretical. FedEx and UPS have tremendous pull in Congress, far more than the nascent drone community, he observed. They are likely to lobby for exclusive air space and win—particularly given their lobbying heft and the relative lack of a counter-lobby to argue the consumer drone side. In that case, manufacturers could be forced to build in limitations to keep drones from flying into restricted airspace—just as DJI now enforces restrictions around airports and Washington D.C. These restrictions could be particularly difficult for commercial operators, like surveyors or cinematographers, who need to push their drones higher than your average enthusiast.

Despite the potential for regulatory turbulence, commercial drone operators have signed up for FAA certification by the thousands, Schulman noted. It remains to be seen whether these new headwinds will stall the drone market or simply jostle it en-route to ever wider adoption.