UAVs vs. Small Sats - Which has the more viable business model today?

In an article published today in the Wall Street Journal, John Hickey, the No. 2 safety official at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), told a United Nations meeting over the weekend that regulatory approval to operate unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) alongside commercial aircraft is "not going to be as soon as some people tend to think."

This will be troubling news for many in the geospatial community that feel that UAVs offer a cost effective solution for applications in utilities, agriculture, urban planning and emergency response, just to name a few. More delays mean lost business. I spoke with a small company operating a UAV today and the angst with regard to prolonging an announcement about the regulations for commercial UAV flights was palpable.

The timing however, while bad news for UAV startups, may be good news for small sat startups, of which there are many and seemingly more are coming soon. Launching small sats, no matter how much they weigh, is more costly than a small drone, of course. But if the delay in FAA regulations causes companies to close up shop, small sats, launched by well-capitalized entrepreneurs, may close the gap in cost, tasking and timeliness of delivery of remotely-sensed data. Whether its real-time HD video from Skybox or UrtheCast, or the launch of a "flock" of small sats from Planet Labs, earth observation data will be streaming down in massive volumes daily. This will impact the viability of the business model for UAVs and the longer the FAA takes to offer a planned integration of drones into the National Airspace System the more detrimental the effect.

The end game is faster delivery of information. It's not spatial resolution or spectral fidelity. The rush to launch small sats is to increase repeat coverage of the same geographical area daily. And, if there are enough birds in the sky, that time period may be even shorter. UAVs offer convenience, flexibility and cost effectiveness. But they need to have the freedom to operate first. There is a confluence of events taking place. Any delay by the FAA, which is mandated by Congress to have a plan in place by the fall of 2015, or delays to the launch of small sats, due to political events, sanctions or otherwise, creates opportunity for one platform over the other.

Editor's Note: Attend the upcoming Directions' webinar: Operating UAV's in U.S. Airspace - the Legal Implications, August 27, 2 PM Eastern.

Published Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

Written by Joe Francica

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