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Drone Year in Review: The Top 10 Drone News Stories of 2020

BY Zacc Dukowitz
24 December 2020

Despite the pandemic—or maybe, in some ways, because of it—2020 has been a huge year for the drone industry.

From the outcry around the FAA’s proposed Remote ID rule, to all the attention drones got in the early days of the pandemic, to debates about Chinese drone bans, major product releases, and a lot more, there is plenty to cover when looking back on 2020.

Here is our list of the top ten drone news stories from this year.

1. Remote ID Outcry

remote-id-faa-nprm

Way back at the beginning of the year, before COVID-19 had really hit the U.S., it looked like the FAA’s proposed rule for Remote ID might be the biggest drone news story of the year—even though it was still just January.

The FAA’s Remote ID NPRM (Notice of Public Rule Making) racked up over 50,000 comments, most of them critical of the proposed rule. Fast forward to the end of 2020 and the rule has still not been finalized, but it looks like it will be announced some time in 2021.

Further reading:

2. COVID-19 Emphasizes Value of Drones

drones-chula-vista
Photo credit: Chula Vista Police Department

In March, when the Coronavirus first led to mass quarantines and lockdowns in the U.S., many drone companies began rallying the FAA to loosen restrictions on BVLOS drone delivery and other prohibited operations so that they could have more latitude for how their technology was used in relief efforts.

The FAA didn’t agree to do that, but they did share several ways that the existing regulatory framework (i.e., the Part 107 rules) allowed for supporting the COVID-19 fight, which we covered in this article.

Despite the FAA refusing to rush permissions for various drone companies, drone delivery was leveraged this year to deliver food, medical supplies, and eventually Coronavirus test kits. Drones were also used as flying loudspeakers all over the world, sharing safety messages with groups of people.

Further reading:

3. Focus on the U.S. Drone Industry Supply Chain

dji-drone-asda-2020
Image source

The anticipation of the passage of the American Security Drone Act (ASDA) had many drone companies scrambling this year, largely because the bill called for a federal ban on Chinese drone and Chinese drone components.

Such a ban has far-reaching implications for the U.S. supply chain, since many drone companies—both those based in the U.S. and those based elsewhere throughout the world—rely on Chinese drone components, and many U.S. drone programs (lots of public safety programs, for instance) rely on Chinese drones.

In the spring, we did a 3-part investigative series looking at how the ASDA might impact the U.S. drone industry, and what was being done to grow the domestic supply chain in order to free U.S. drone companies and drone programs from their reliance on Chinese technology.

Debates over a country-of-origin ban on Chinese drones and drone components have continued to rage throughout this year.

Congress removed such a ban from the most recent NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act), but news just broke this week that the U.S. Department of Commerce has added DJI to its ‘entity list’ of blacklisted companies.

You can read our 3-part series on the ASDA here:

4. The Pentagon’s List of Blue UAS

teal-drone-blue-uas-2020
Photo credit: Teal Drones

Related to the above, this year the Pentagon released a list of five drones that it had approved for use by the federal government, which it calls Blue UAS.

These five drone companies worked closely with the Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) to meet all of its rigorous requirements, and the release of the list posed a significant step forward for U.S. government efforts to start proposing trusted alternate solutions to DJI.

Here are the five drones approved by the Pentagon:

5. FAA’s UAS IPP Ends, BEYOND Program Begins

faa-beyond-program-2020
Image credit: FAA

In October of this year, the FAA’s UAS IPP (UAS Integration Pilot Program) was allowed to end after its stipulated three years.

Shortly before it ended, the FAA announced that its new BEYOND Program would replace it, with a special emphasis on BVLOS operations.

The UAS IPP helped several companies achieve special waivers as well as Part 135 certificates for drone delivery. But some still feel like the program didn’t do enough to achieve its original goals of involving local voices in drone policy decision-making and pushing forward the normalization of operations prohibited by the Part 107 rules.

Further reading:

6. First Commercial Drone Delivery Program Launched

wing-drone-delivery-2020
Photo credit: Wing

This year we saw drone delivery continue to make strides, with Wing Aviation launching the first-ever commercial drone delivery program in Christiansburg, VA at the start of the year.

COVID-19 helped grow demand for drone delivery in Christiansburg, and also sparked interest in both medical and commercial drone delivery elsewhere (though we didn’t see a huge amount of resulting growth in drone delivery programs).

Another big development this year on the drone delivery front was news late this year that Amazon had secured a Part 135 certificate, making it the third company with permission from the FAA to operate a drone airline for the purposes of drone delivery (the other two are Alphabet’s Wing and UPS’ Flight Forward).

Further reading:

7. Commercial Drones on the Rise

tva-drone-inspections-2020
Photo credit: TVA

Commercial drone applications have been on the rise over the last several years, but 2020 saw significant growth in the commercial sector.

Reporting from the FAA this year showed that the commercial drone fleet had grown by 39% over the last year, while the consumer fleet had only grown by 6%.

Public safety was a major focus in the commercial sector this year—a report released by Bard’s Center for the Study of the Drone in March found that 1,500 U.S. public safety agencies used drones, with 70% of them in law enforcement.

Drone-supported inspections were another area that saw significant growth this year.

This year the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) announced that it had reduced the time needed for an inspection of critical infrastructure related to power generation by 98% (a reduction of 470 hours total) by using Flyability’s Elios 2, and the state of North Carolina’s Department of Transportation secured an unprecedented statewide waiver to conduct bridge inspections BVLOS using Skydio’s commercial drones.

8. Major Leaks and Product Launches

dji-mavic-mini-2
Screenshot taken from this YouTube video

The drone industry is rife with leaks, but this year may be record-breaking for the amount of information leaked ahead of product launches.

A standout example is the leak of DJI’s Mini 2, which an unknown YouTuber found for sale at Best Buy.

Someone had accidentally stocked the new drone ahead of its release date, and the YouTuber bought it and documented it in detail, breaking the news not only about the Mini 2’s imminent release but also about all of the specs for the new drone.

His documentation was so thorough that, when DJI officially released it shortly afterward, we didn’t bother to write a new article since we’d already covered all the information in our piece on his leak.

Here are articles highlighting key product leaks and launches from this year:

9. Inspiring Drone Art

reuben-wu-2020
Photo credit: Reuben Wu

This year we had the privilege of covering some incredible instances of art made with and by drones.

Two highlights for us were Reuben Wu’s Light Storm series (a picture from that series is shown above), and the natural photography and videography work of Roger Fishman, which we highlighted in an interview we did with him (a video of his featured in that interview is shown below).

Both of these artists are truly incredible—check out each article to see more of their work:

10. 2020 Was a Big Year for Drones in Scientific Research

Flyability Helps Scientists Explore the Deepest Ice Caves in the World in Greenland

In addition to art, we saw some inspiring drone stories this year on the research front, with drones being used in new innovative ways to support drones for good initiatives all over the world.

From using drones to improve predictions for volcanic eruptions, to mapping icy terrain to improve safety, to collecting water samples for research purposes, drone applications for research have exploded this year.

Here are some of the articles we wrote this year highlighting the ways drones are supporting scientific research:

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