The Commercialization of Drones in the Middle East: Borrowing Lessons from the Past to Regulate the Future
Technological progress has long been known to unlock the true potential of innovation. The drone market is a case in point; the prohibitive upfront price barrier of drones once ensured that only the true enthusiasts had access to them. And with limited range and capacities further dampening the mass-market appeal, they were destined to forever remain a niche product.
However, technological progress in the space over recent years has enabled the drone market to expand rapidly, with the resulting economies of scale driving production costs – and the subsequent cost of ownership – down to more affordable levels.
Advances in technology and the decrease in component pricing have seen an explosion in the kind of drones that were out of reach for most consumers just a few years ago. Indeed, improvements in their power-to-weight ratio and range mean that extremely high-quality drones are now available to purchase everywhere, from consumer electronics stores to hypermarkets and online retailers.
But with this progress comes a new challenge – how to regulate a fledgling market that was previously left to simply regulate itself?
It's a challenge that has been encountered before. Rewind to the early 1900s and Henry Ford was revolutionizing the automobile market by introducing the Model T – a genuine game changer that is widely regarded as the first affordable private car for the middle classes.
Until then, car ownership was open only to the very wealthiest of society. This restricted the number of vehicles on the road and meant they did not cause significant problems. But as their reliability and speed increased, so did the calls for them to be regulated.
Dismissing the option of banning them outright, several governments around the world saw the huge economic potential of the private automobile and began regulating their operation, responding to further technological advancements as and when required.
This is likely to be the path that drone regulation follows; and here in the Gulf region, this is ably being led by Dubai, which has recognized the importance of drones (among other innovation-accelerating technologies) to the future of the economy and sought to regulate their use rather than simply banning them outright.
Of course, such regulatory decisions must be made in the context of the global economy, as individual nations can no longer dismiss the bigger picture when considering their approach to technology. Indeed, any decision has to be weighed against the potential impact on the competitiveness of the economy relative to others.
For example, if a business decides to use drones for door-to-door deliveries globally (as Amazon has suggested in the media), what would be the economic impact on a country if the use of drones had already been banned there?
The Government of Dubai, in conjunction with the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority, has chosen the progressive route, opting to regulate the sale and use of drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles) and remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) in the emirate.
The procedure is very transparent and can be compared to the requirements for driving a car. We all know that both driver and vehicle need to be registered prior to use on the emirate's roads, and now the same system applies for flying drones in the emirate's skies.
The decision has been made to classify drones into two main categories – broadly, a personal (hobbyist) category and commercial operations category. The procedures have been thought out carefully, with separate registrations required for commercially trading drones and actually operating them.
A minimum age of 16 is now in place for operating a drone in Dubai (18 years for commercial operators), while a skills assessment test and training course must also be completed. There are currently two recognized training facilities in the emirate, but there is also an allowance for international training certificates to be recognized.
Safe drone operating guidelines are also distributed by the regulatory authorities, including information on no-fly zones (e.g., around airports) and maximum altitude ceilings. Insurance is now mandatory for commercial applications, and it is strongly recommended for personal use as well.
Much like cars, these policies typically cover third-party liability as well as the loss or damage of the drone during operation, and such insurance products are already available in Dubai.
Prohibiting the use of cars on the roads when they were first introduced would have dealt a severe hammer blow to technological and economic progress. And the setback would have been far reaching, impacting not only cars but also the numerous innovations that followed their lead, including trucks for freight transportation and even commercial aviation.
Drones will undoubtedly become a more commonplace technology over the coming years; but right now, we are only at the very beginning of their journey. Who knows what truly groundbreaking innovations they could spawn further down the line?
And for that reason, the decision to support the drone industry through the drafting of effective regulation maintains Dubai's reputation as a progressive place to do business and shows great vision from the country's leadership.