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New Developments in UAVs – GIS Lounge

While 2020 will be remembered for the COVID-19 pandemic, in many ways 2020 also demonstrated the importance of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to the global economy and our globalized lifestyle. These tools became indispensable as human travel became restricted, affecting research and monitoring of agriculture, utilities, and security.

However, 2021 promises new changes that are set to shakeup UAVs and their use in future years.

UAV Rule Changes in the United States in 2021

In the US, one major change will be changes to the US Department of Commerce’s Entity List, which will now ban DJI, a major UAV company based in China, and prohibits US companies from exporting technology to the company.[1] This signals that the US now sees China as a major competitor in the UAV industry. This could limit sales of this company’s popular UAVs in coming years, although it is not clear what the long-term impact will be.

Drone with ground-penetrating radar system flying close over river surface. Photo: John W. Lane, USGS. Public domain.
Drone with ground-penetrating radar system flying close over river surface. Photo: John W. Lane, USGS. Public domain.

Changes that will have the most near-term impact deal with other US regulatory changes. Major new regulations by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will now require that you broadcast a UAV operator’s location as well as the UAV’s location for UAVs less than 55 lbs. This effectively gives UAVs a license plate that can be monitored as well as providing information on who is operating a UAV. This rule will come into effect in 2022.

Other changes will also include being able to fly at night and allowing operators to fly over people, which will come into effect in 2021.[2] The rules affecting how UAVs can fly at night and over people, if it is a small drone, will mean we are now likely to also see UAVs being used for deliveries by companies such as Amazon and Alphabet in the near future, possibly within this year.

While many regulation changes will affect delivery, perhaps another key change is the wider roll out of 5G, which promises enhanced data transmission, including for UAVs. We are now likely to see UAVs conduct more sophisticated operations and data transmission, meaning that UAVs can become more autonomous and provide more data as data transmission improves.[3]  

UAV Rule Changes in the European Union in 2021

The European Union since January 1st 2021 has also enacted new rules. These rules affect how UAVs are classified, with categories including open, specific, and certified. For “open”, this is mainly activities classified as leisure or basic. “Specific” relates to more riskier activities, requiring a license to fly and operate a UAV. “Certified” is the riskiest category, but it mainly deals with very limited current activities and mostly will affect future activities, such as companies developing UAV taxis or delivery systems for commercial products.

Manufacturers will also be accountable for UAVs are compliance in classifying UAVs, with class ratings ranging from C0 to  that define technical characteristics.[4] These regulations signal the the EU is preparing for a near future where UAVs will be used for a more varied range of activities that involve everything from passengers, monitoring events, and delivery of items.

Developments for UAVs

In China, UAVs have already been operating and used for deliveries and during the pandemic they proved vital as China implemented very strict lockdowns across the country. Companies such as EHang, ZTO Express, and JD.com are now not only improving drone delivery systems across China, including developing larger UAVs to increase how much they can carry, but regulation is also being developed that will allow experimental passenger UAVs to operate in the near future.

New vertical takeoff UAVs are in the development and experimentation phase but could be seen operating with passengers in the next few years. Both in the US, EU, and China, regulatory preparation are being considered that will regulate long-distance UAVs and UAVs that operate autonomously.

A growing area of interest and development will also be UAVs used for first responder purposes, particularly in delivering aid and assistance in remote regions.[5] 

Similarly, Uber Air, which was recently sold, has been developing the concept of air UAV taxis in the US, although both regulation and infrastructure for this are likely to be some years further away relative to changes in China. However, given that China has made significant progress in unmanned taxis and delivery systems, the US has recently attempted to catch-up by investing more in technologies and attempts to allow regulation to catch-up.[6]

Regulation changes are now beginning to accelerate across many countries in relation to UAVs (drones), particularly as the number of UAVs and rapid changes to technology become evident. For many countries, particularly the US and China, it is also seen as a race that is part of the broader economic battle and competition being developed.

For consumers, in the near-term we will likely see UAVs become more common and applied in tasks such as deliveries of packages or aid. We are likely some years away from air passengers taking UAVs but regulation changes mean that in Europe, the US, and China, legal preparations are being made so this becomes reality in the not too distant future.


[1]    For more on the DJI regulation, see:  https://www.techradar.com/uk/news/dji-ban-what-it-means-for-drone-fans-and-the-future-of-dji.

[2]    For more on FAA regulation that will come into effect, see:  https://www.theverge.com/2020/12/28/22203398/faa-remote-id-rules-location-night-over-people.

[3]    For a recent article on 5G implications for UAVs, see:  https://5g.co.uk/news/uk-government-5g-drone-market/5470/.

[4]    For more on EU rules and regulation changes, see:  https://www.commercialuavnews.com/europe/new-european-union-drone-regulations-should-help-to-make-drone-operations-easier-and-safer-for-everyone.

[5]    For more on China developments in relation to UAV regulations and technologies, see:  https://www.inputmag.com/tech/chinese-drone-delivery-gets-set-to-overtake-us-efforts.

[6]    For more on how the US is trying to catch-up in the large UAV delivery systems, as well as unmanned air passenger taxis, see: https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-air-force-gives-lift-to-flying-taxis-11607596206.


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