“Beware of those bearing gifts” – Virgil 29BC

This blogpost is an opinion piece and look behind the curtain on why we believe in open drone ecosystems, on why the name of our drone management platform has a large portion of the word ‘connect’ in it, and why we fight against barriers to market access. We believe that useful applications should be enabled rather than having drones controlled by some dominant players or/and even prevented.

We also argue that drones – as the disruptive technology they are – deserve the best possible support and environment to thrive in. That support will be achieved when flights are managed through an open, connected system. Not by a closed one. We understand what the reasons of enforcing a closed system are. Those reasons however do not serve the cause of any drone pilot, authority or industry. They are only serving the benefit of one or two players, and their investors.

Let us guide you through our story.

On September 3rd 2019, the Belgian Civil Aviation Authority (BCAA) decided that 9 days later, a software application called Droneguide Pro, would become the only possible method to notify the highest risk drone flights and to get derogations on otherwise unauthorized flights. It came around the same time that the BCAA launched a digital way to register aircraft, including drones and created a drone council.

Up until now and for sure until that fateful day, we have been supporting hundreds of Belgian pilots and companies since the launch of the actual drone regulations in May 2016 by sending their flight notifications for the same category of flights smoothly to the BCAA. We were given no prior notice of this decision and were not consulted on how we could connect our platform to the new software solution.

Not only did we – and still do – support Belgian pilots for supporting their drone operations from A to Z with our software application since 2015, we also helped multiple companies get their Operations Manual approved, in which IDRONECT is described as the management tool, including to send notifications.

So we decided – obviously – to oppose this decision, in order to prevent that our efforts and our economic livelihood is put in danger, and that our users are being forced into a direction against their will.

For all transparency we like to describe here what our arguments are, as well as the history of our product.

Let’s start off with some history:

We started our endeavor in the summer of 2015 when it became clear that drone users need some help in dealing with all of the tasks that are required before flying the unmanned devices. More than 80% of drone pilots are new to aviation, and aviation rules are difficult, even for aviation professionals. So we created Dronelog.be and showed it quite soon to the Belgian aviation authorities who gladly saw our efforts as an enabling tool, also for their own possible use.

Drones do not follow the same logic as traditional aircraft. The technological advances made by the drone sector are so fast, that we don’t know yet what will be flying in the sky in let’s say 12 months. Large airplanes like the A380 or B787 take years and years to develop and to get operational. Traditional aviation laws also sometimes take 5 years or more from idea to actually being implemented. When we started in 2015, a DJI Phantom 3 was the go-to drone for the serious recreational pilot. Now, 4 years later, even the improved Phantom 4 has become a relic, as we are witnessing and observing tests with UAV’s carrying passengers and drones delivering pizzas. The drone industry itself by means of its users and developers largely outpaces the regulators, the authorities and the general public. In order to give this great industry the best possible chance we offered our solution to the authority for free, we did not want any barrier that would hinder the great potential. Why ? Because we believe that the drone industry can only grow if it grows in a safe and secure way without barriers holding it back.

When we launched our improved platform IDRONECT on February 2nd 2016, we truly had a world’s premier. We managed a drone flight at what we now know as DronePort. A pilot created a drone flight plan, which was approved by the airport commander and subsequently by the aviation authorities. All were connected on one platform and the flight got approval in a matter of minutes. The original flight had to be cancelled due to the rain, so we made a new flight plan live in front of all tech-journalists that were abundantly present. The flight was tracked live within a pre-formatted geofence. We were way ahead in the process. Happy faces all over, authorities clapped and praised our efforts, live radio-shows and TV-interviews followed.

We showed that the industry itself could come up with a solution that filled a need for all parties involved. The industry itself described the need and came up with a good solution. The only solution ? Of course not. But at least one that at that time enabled industry growth. In a safe way and fully compliant with all regulatory requirements.

Our positive inertia lead us to win the Drone Hero 2016 award, received out of the hands of then Alexander Decroo – the Minister responsible for digitalization. His speech on the benefits of peer-to-peer economy and sharing of knowledge and value still resonates in our ears until today. We were at the right time at the right place. Were we ?

Little did we know that our moments of TV-fame in February 2016, awakened forces that before were unaware of our existence.

Soon after winning our award, we got news from the BCAA that it could no longer use our platform since it used it for free (in fact what it could do with our solution was approve or disapprove a flight by clicking a button, depending on the flight scenario and risk analysis that was presented by the drone pilot. This was before the actual drone regulations introduced a system with derogations and notifications). Even when the authority made clear that it was not using our platform as the only method but merely for the drone pilots who used it, it did not matter. It had to stop using us. Who decided this, and based on what ?

In the 18 months that followed, we saw the birth of Belgian drone rules, with flight classes, licenses, derogations, notifications and so on. We signed up more users than ever, as the need for support was high. Drone pilots used IDRONECT to create flight scenarios, analyses risks, check weather and notams, all by using real-time data and ADQ charts, and send their flight notifications to the authorities. All of this by following our 3 main values: safety, legality and efficiency.

In the last quarter of 2017 we were recognized for our efforts by being invited to participate in a tender process by then Belgocontrol (now skeyes) to deliver a UTM solution. We found it logical that other providers would be able to connect  to the solution that would be offered, we assumed that indeed the solution would never be imposed as the sole solution.

We were not selected despite being our expertise and low cost.

We did not take this to court, we felt that that would halt the drone industry’s progress , which was opposite of our values; we instead decided to focus on making our product even better. Anyway, the authorities stated they would never make the chosen solution mandatory, so we could always cooperate.

However, it now appears that the chosen solution is being made mandatory. We feel we were put to sleep and made to believe we were allowed; we did the notifications (still do actually) in the 21 months it took for the solution to come live.

We think that it is necessary to go back to the present day.

When the BCAA communicated on September 3rd 2019 that the chosen product would become mandatory on 12th of September, and seeing skeyes (formerly Belgocontrol)’s spokespeople declare ‘world premieres’, the time to stand by the sidelines was over.

We immediately engaged into constructive communication with the BCAA. We not only pointed out that we believe that it was in no position to impose the use of the product , but we also asked for  the freedom to be able to continue our services to the same public we had been doing for the last nearly 4 years.

We got a transition period of 3 months. This transition period ends on 12th of December 2019. At that day the chosen solution will be made mandatory. No other means of compliance with the drone regulations are made possible. Not via our platform. Not via any other platform.

In the last 2,5 months we engaged multiple times with the BCAA, and once with skeyes, to find a solution. We get a lot of support from our user base and people who do not want to be told what to do, even when it’s free, and especially on a flawed product.

All of our efforts were to no avail. At the end of October, the BCAA has let us know that it will not change its decision and does not want to listen to any of our arguments.

The solution is easy and straightforward however. The BCAA could simply extend the transition period until the new EASA regulations comes into force. In theory this is around July 2020, or 8 months from now. At that moment derogations and notifications as we know it will come to end and the chosen solution becomes obsolete. In fact it took 21 months to make and will be used for 8 months, which cannot be understood.

The BCAA (but much more skeyes) does not want to extend the transition phase. For the sake of safety, they say.

Which safety ? The safety we have helped to uphold for the last 4 years, the last 21 months of which the industry was waiting for the chosen solution ? That safety ? The same safety that has been front and center in our application since day 1 ? The one that we help to control by a real-time risk assessment which goes above and beyond any drone regulation and which every pilot using our platform gets for free (IDROGRADE) ? That safety ?

What is the reason why we absolutely need to get banned from the Belgian drone scene?

What is the reason to force this tool upon the Belgian drone pilots 8 months before new rules will become law?

We felt we had to do something, and hence on November 2nd filed a court case against the BCAA for annulment of the decision to make Droneguide Pro mandatory as of December 12th. We remain of course a strong supporter of a constructive solution. We still hope common sense will prevail. One that protects our rights but also the rights of our users and the drone sector as a whole. We rather spend our time and money on productive aspects, those who help the industry forward.

This is not only a fight for our rights. We also fight for the drone pilot’s rights. And the rights of the multiple useful drone applications and ventures that would be made impossible by a decision to make aforementioned solution mandatory. If you read this and you think your rights are being jeopardized, of you are feeling you are not getting the service you need from the BCAA or from the solution you are forced to use, or if you just support us in our struggle, don’t hesitate to share it with us.

The case for openness and connectivity.

As an epilogue to this post, we also like to share with you our view and opinion on how the drone sector can be helped by offering openness and being connected. Both of which we feel very passionate about.

In an ever evolving world software creators have realized that applications have to work together to get user or customer needs solved and expectations fulfilled as good as possible. It is impossible to offer everything a user needs in one solution. Convenience becomes a commodity. Automation an evidence. The convenience and ease that automation brings is being made possible by smart connections. Connections are made possible by communication protocols.

We as humans use natural language to communicate. That’s even possible for software systems these days, but in the last decades people behind software platforms have used APIs (Application programming interfaces) to allow systems to communicate with one another. Nowadays all systems have some sort of API to allow to integrate data and features from one application to another. Droneguide Pro has not.

The whole thing with connectivity and openness is even more important when we are talking about flying (ro)bots. Even though legislators don’t allow them to fly autonomously everywhere (yet), it’s a public secret that they will do so eventually. Where people would have frowned upon the concept of self-driving cars and the likes, autonomous vacuum cleaners and ever-more connected homes have proven that in the next decade things will shift. And things will shift faster than supporting solutions can follow.

Where (drone) pilots and car drivers are still a necessity today, the next generation will laugh with the idea. Just like we wouldn’t understand a world without internet, smartphones, airplanes or even electricity, pilotless airplanes and self-driving cars will be just as common. My grandmother couldn’t even imagine the very same tablet she’s working with today.

Technology is not moving forward with small steps every decade like how it has been. It is now making big leaps every month.

When people or companies want to build innovative applications with drones they will want to make sure that everything can be handled with ease and in an automated fashion. Just like how things are evolving in our everyday lives.

To be able to handle regulatory aspects in those applications side-by-side with the technical, economical, societal,… challenge it may solve. The legal systems and the tools we (have to) use to be compliant have to be adapted to the 21th century.

When authorities choose systems that only look at making their lives easier, instead of trying to help society and the industry move forward, we go from bad to worse. They create harm upon whole industries to help a few players create monopolies where none are needed.

How can an authority choose for, and try to impose a system that does not want to talk with any other system? They should know they are creating harm to anyone that wants to make a business in the field they are trying to close down.

When looking at drone flight approvals, they close down the possibility to get automated legal clearance to fly in a certain area but favor a system that can only be managed by humans. It’s applying 1990 bureaucracy methods by means of modern technology.

A system that cannot talk with other systems, whether it’s software that happens before or during flights, takes away the possibility for applications that want to integrate regulation in a bigger flow. To unlock yet unknown potential. Anno 2019 on the brink of 2020 we don’t need to explain the variety of applications that could benefit from automated exemption or flight notification handling.

Meanwhile, worldwide there are various examples of already deployed systems that do allow the industry to thrive. The most well-known system is obviously LAANC. It allows for operators in the United States to request exemptions for (small) restricted areas for short amounts of time. It’s way more advanced than the email/digital paper flows that the closed systems such as Droneguide offers. And it allows vendors of any software to connect to this system to offer the drone operators choice in how they want to get permission to fly. Choice in how they want to notify their flights. It allows these people to be compliant without the hassle of being compliant. It allows these companies to thrive. Being deprived of choice – soon the case for companies in Belgium – will cause companies to only suffer and risk to have to put down the books because of unnecessary regulatory burden and insecurity.

When people ask why starting drone companies fail or run away from Belgium. Situations like this could obviously be the reason.

We are in a time where all citizens expect supervisory authorities to be leaner, where CEOs of the big national monopolies complain that their companies will never be as effective as private companies in dealing with the things they have to deal with. During that time we freely give up the possibility to create an open, lean system that makes our industry thrive.

The Droneguide system is a closed system where all drone users are forced to login to request exemptions and send notifications. For drone pilots there is no other reason to use this tool than to perform these actions, which are required by law.

These services could as well be performed through other applications. For example an application that’s integrated with the flight controller of the drone. Applications who are tailored to perform certain inspections, like windmills or solar panels. Or it could be integrated in a full suite of applications to handle all things a drone operator needs, like IDRONECT. And in the future it could automatically be performed from the drone itself without a need from direct user interaction.

By forcing everybody to use one system directly through its interface all the businesses that try to make innovative applications are caused harm. The industry is caused harm as they are losing the opportunity of choice for a specific product. As time goes by newer and more innovative ways of handling certain aspects of a drone business will become apparent, but a monopoly holder will be handling everything and being a monopoly holder will not be able to provide the required flexibility.

In contrast, during the last 24 months, the period within which the nearly obsolete application serving the monopoly in Belgium was created, the FAA has developed a UAS data exchange program. They do not try to monopolize any services other than the things they really need to control. Sending notification or requesting exemptions can be done by third party services and is far more automated than the Skeyes interface. They provide the industry ways to interact with them, and build as few things as possible to prevent hampering the market. They remove any barrier that is not really required.

Note: Removing barriers was recently added to the list of actions to promote the drone industry in the Belgian Civil Drone Council. They can start by removing one by allowing a longer transition period.

https://www.faa.gov/uas/programs_partnerships/data_exchange/

Above is a diagram of the FAA LAANC system (part of the UAS data exchange program). You can clearly see that the market is less interrupted and does not need to change from the tools they already use. All the players on the market are able to implement LAANC directly in their applications as soon as they get a LAANC approval from the FAA.

Here is also a list from the FAA website that shows many players implemented this technology in their application. This proves that such an open system is not a request made by the faint. It’s rather how the system should have been in the first place. The fact that BCAA as ruling authority and skeyes are insisting that there needs to be a closed system in Belgium only proves they are not acting in the interest of the industry. Ironically enough, one of the approved service suppliers for LAANC is the company that provides skeyes with this extremely closed system. As this company, hence skeyes and hence BCAA are aware that such a system exists, could be implemented and could be beneficial for the market, why do they insist to close down the market?