SAN JOSE, Calif. — Commercial drones are lining up on the runway with high hopes for air traffic control systems tailored for unmanned vehicles. But a lack of appropriate regulations may keep them from getting off the ground for a while.

That was the view from the Drone World Expo here. The event gathered proponents that ranged from Airbus, GE and Lockheed Martin to Facebook, Google and a White House science and technology advisor.

Clashing cultures in aviation, commercial and consumer industries need to collaborate on how to manage a diverse, emerging fleet of vehicles that want to fly in air space between 200 and 500, speakers said.

A million drone operators have already registered with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, 75,000 for commercial use, a number forecast to grow five-fold in the next five years, said Michael Kratsios, deputy U.S. chief technology officer for the Trump Administration in a brief keynote here. But regulators still need to figure out how to let drones fly at night, over people and beyond a visual line-of-sight, he noted.

“We want to make the U.S. a leader [in integrated airspace]…It’s a top priority for this White House, and we have some really good things in the pipeline,” Kratsios said without offering any specifics.

Meanwhile companies are revving their engines. Airbus started an experimental service using drones to unload freighters in Singapore, said Jesse Kallman, president of Airbus Aerial, a new division it set up for commercial drone services.

A new group at GE is gearing up to offer commercial drone services to monitor utility and oil and gas lines. “We think we can automate 35-65% of all inspections our customers do now, making it safer, less cumbersome and delivering a dramatic reduction in time required,” said Susan Roberts, a founder of GE Beyond.

Google has already logged 30,000 test flights using drones for small package delivery in rural Australia. Eventually it hopes to leverage Google Maps to provide free flight-planning services to consumer drone users.

“We will see a future where drones are a part of the aviation ecosystem, delivering goods while reducing traffic and the carbon footprint,” said Laura Ponto, a former FAA attorney who now heads regulatory affairs for Google’s Project Wing. “We are in a period where there is tension between the traditional aviation sector and new entrants, but that is changing,” she said.

Rival Facebook is getting ready to buy avionics for a next-generation high-altitude drone it will use to deliver Internet access to remote areas. Its biggest challenge is a lack of regulations for building and flying its 1,000-pound plane with a 200-foot wingspan that will slowly climb to high altitudes and circle there for a month or more.

“It’s the world’s most boring mission, but the air traffic control systems of the world don’t know how to handle it,” said Martin Gomez, a veteran avionics engineer now director of aeronautical platforms at Facebook. The diversity of unmanned vehicles in the works “can’t be regulated like traditional aircraft, but we want regs,” Gomez said.

Kratsios showed attendees a picture of President Trump inspecting a drone at a recent White House event. (Images: EE Times)
Kratsios showed attendees a picture of President Trump inspecting a drone at a recent White House event. (Images: EE Times)

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