An investor’s perspective on the proposed drone regulations

It was an exciting Sunday morning on a holiday weekend in the world of small commercial drones (small Unmanned Aerial Systems as FAA calls them). We had heard last week that FAA was close to announcing their regulatory framework, and it has arrived. Finally, after nearly a decade of persuasion from everyone, from the drone community to the US Congress to the President of the USA, FAA has published its Notice on Proposed Rule Making for commercial use of sUAS.

I am a believer in the potential of commercial drones in the USA. We have been leaders in the drone technology space, and a lack of clarity from the FAA was hindering our progress. One could argue it was hurting our standing globally in the space, and many US companies had actively started processes to primarily focus on non-US business opportunities. My blog post at the end of 2014 outlined some areas where I envisioned innovations to bear fruit in 2015, but their exploitation hinged on the regulatory environment.

Below are some thoughts on the FAA NPRM (summary here of the regulatory document which will go through a 60-day comment period and will likely become law in 12-18 months).

  • At Lux Capital, we believe the FAA drone regulatory document is a big step forward, a watershed moment, in the future of aerial robotics.
  • Investors will no longer need to discuss product and technology innovation roadmaps of drone companies in the context of baseless rumors & leaked documents regarding s confusing and regulatory environment.
  • The drone industry is taking a collective sigh of relief that FAA is approaching regulations with a somewhat practical and common sense approach. Earlier leaked memos etc had cultivated a fear of draconian, irrational laws. Those fears were ungrounded. We hope the FAA will instill a greater degree of transparency in its process as it continues to use the regulatory process to fully integrate drones into our commercial airspace.
  • Technology in the drone space is evolving rapidly, from navigation systems to control, optical stabilization, lidar based sense and avoid to fleet management, compliance and insurance. We should continue to see great things emerge form this industry that is currently attracting some of the smartest minds in engineering.
  • I often saw investors discussing what FAA regulatory bottlenecks might look like, and if it was “the right time for this technology”? Regulatory uncertainty kept many investors on the sidelines. Clarity from FAA should help all such investors, including those interested in investing in not-technology but service businesses built downstream.
  • There remains a lot of work in bringing FAA regulations in line with emerging tech. For e.g. CyPhy Works drones can be tethered to ground for continuous use. They are not flying freely, and should they not be allowed to operate at nights as well? Besides, aren’t drones equally visible at night with LEDs and other lighting? Or, for e.g. current regulations limit use to visible line of sight. This sounds good but is practically, is it really easier to control dots flying at 100 mph when viewed with just naked eye vs enhanced viewing features including the use of augmented and virtual reality technologies? And what about autonomous flights? If we can have autonomous cars driving on the highways in California, drone flights are in fact easier, esp with the latest on-board sense and avoid technologies.

All in all, this FAA document is a major step forward for the US drone industry, and entrepreneurs are excited to continue to build for US commercial use-cases. The US drone industry expects to create jobs and spur economic growth, increase productivity in our agricultural fields and construction industries, improve worker safety in mining locations and oil-fields, and help protect our environment as well as save lives during natural and other disasters. The aerial robotics revolution has just begun and amazing times lie ahead. For engineers, innovators, entrepreneurs and investors!

We at Lux Capital are watching this closely, and investing in this space.