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Digital transformation and 5G product development

Most enterprises see digital transformation in terms of customer experiences and business models. Digital is also quietly changing the way products are developed.

Most of what you read about digital transformation focuses on customer experiences, business model agility, and the effect that all of this has on enterprises — particularly IT departments.

Less widely recognized is the fact that digital technology is revolutionizing product development and management. Makers of smart products are using digital tools to speed prototype development, facilitate manufacturing and product testing, and enhance life-cycle management.

Products are generally becoming smarter. We now have smart TVs, smart speakers, smart refrigerators, and even smart sneakers. The most ordinary products can be made “smart” by adding Bluetooth beacons, RF ID tags or QR codes that provide information or links to webpages.

We are also surrounded by increasingly complex, high-performance products. Today’s popular smartphones have more processing power and memory than supercomputers that sold for millions of dollars each in the 1980s. The widespread availability of such sophisticated products is made possible by semiconductor technology — with help from Moore’s law. Once the solution to a complex problem has been developed, it can be miniaturized, embedded in silicon, and mass-produced.

In other words, some products are becoming so smart that manufacturing them is the easy part. It’s developing them in timely fashion, testing them thoroughly, and supporting them over their life cycle that have become bigger challenges.

5G wireless products are a prime example. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) envisions 5G technical standards enabling three new markets. Peak speeds in excess of 10 Gbps will create opportunities for enhanced mobile broadband products and services. Support for more than one million connections per square kilometer will allow IoT devices to be deployed on a massive scale. And latency under 1 millisecond will permit 5G wireless to serve demanding applications such as autonomous vehicles.

5G wireless is also shaping up to serve a market that was not envisioned by the ITU. Millimeter wave spectrum, small cells, and higher spectral efficiency will enable 5G networks to leapfrog cable networks in capacity — making it practical for wireless operators to provide fixed broadband service to small businesses and homes. (More robust broadband communication could also boost remote team collaboration; I’ll have more to say about that in a future post.)

Developing products at this early stage in 5G’s evolution is problematic. It’s as if everyone woke up at the same time and realized that 5G is coming and is going to be important. The Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), which oversees much of the development of 5G technical standards, has put Phase 1 standards on a fast track with mid-2018 as the target completion date. However, companies hoping to be first-to-market have already begun developing products. Companies focusing on the fixed broadband market are even preparing to go to market with pre-standard products.

The best way to speed the development of a complex, high-performance product is to build a working prototype out of modules using tools designed for creating and assembling such modules. Duncan Hudson, Chief Platform Officer at National Instruments, likens this to the use of hardware and software Legos.

For instance, National Instrument’s LabView system allows developers to manipulate graphical representations of software code. Field programmable gate arrays are used to create and assemble digital hardware blocks. (Major FPGA suppliers include Xilinx, Intel, Lattice Semiconductor and Microsemi.) This modular approach is currently being used to speed the development of 5G base stations with up to 128 antennas, millimeter wave radios, and products requiring cellular/Wi-Fi coexistence.

British mathematician I.J. Good once suggested that eventually only very smart machines will be able develop smarter machines — humans won’t be able to keep up. I think he was wrong. Digital technology makes product development easier by enabling virtualization and even nested virtualization. For instance, you don’t need to know how to develop a more powerful microprocessor in order to design a more powerful computer. But you do need teams of developers working at different levels.

5G wireless is just one area in which digital technology has begun to transform product development. The same thing is happening in the defense, automotive, and energy industries — just to name a few. Over time, digital technology will transform product (and also service) development in all industries.

This post is based on commentary by Ira Brodsky that first appeared at Computerworld. Brodsky is a Senior Analyst with Datacomm Research and is the author of five books about technology. Brodsky focuses on mobile solutions for payments, retail automation, and health care.

Which 5G path leads to robust growth for mobile operators?

The following was originally published on September 5, 2017 as an analyst angle piece at RCR Wireless News:

Mobile operators have reached a critical juncture. According to CTIA – The Wireless Association, there are 396 million devices connected to mobile networks in the U.S. Nearly everyone has mobile phones (about 80% smartphones), the percentage of wireless-only households has surpassed 50%, and mobile operators are adding more “things” (such as tablets, cars, and machines) to their networks.

If mobile operators expect another decade of vigorous growth, then they must look beyond phones. They must also choose carefully: The wrong decision could lead to stagnation and decline.

The two biggest growth opportunities are the internet of Things (IoT) and internet and TV to the home.

Beware the internet of things hype. I first wrote about this in 2004. That year, industry analysts predicted that tens of billions of things would be connected to the internet within five years. It didn’t happen. More than a dozen years later, they are still saying that tens of billions of things will be connected to the internet in five years.

Don’t get me wrong. The internet of Things is a huge opportunity. Actually, IoT is many opportunities – and that is part of the problem. There are dozens of market segments, each developing at its own pace. Some are best served by wide area networks, but many are best served by local area networks. And while many families are willing to add their automobiles to shared data plans, few enterprises are going to spend $30 per month on individual sensors.

The FCC’s 2016 Wireless Competition Report estimates that mobile operators in the U.S. are adding about 2 million IoT devices to their networks every quarter. Even if we assume that operators worldwide are adding 20 million IoT devices to their networks every quarter, it will take ten years just to reach one billion connected devices. Until the rate at which IoT devices are added accelerates, mobile operators can’t expect much revenue growth from the internet of things.

What about the other major opportunity: broadband services to the home? Up until now, it hasn’t been practical for mobile operators to compete with cable, wireline, and satellite operators providing TV and internet services to the home. The average home consumes nearly 200 gigabytes of internet data per month, and an even larger quantity of high-definition TV. That’s way more than the average mobile user consumes.

Though 4G networks boast speeds up to 1 Gbps, they don’t have the capacity to provide internet and TV services to homes. The “unlimited” video plans that mobile operators tout really aren’t unlimited. Once the subscriber consumes about 20 gigabytes for the month, their download speed is reduced. And this despite the fact that it takes less data to fill the smaller screens on smartphones and tablets.

5G wireless could be a giant step forward. According to a report by Rysavy Research, by using millimeter wave spectrum, small cells, and higher spectral efficiency, mobile networks will leapfrog cable networks, delivering up to 100 times greater capacity. Factor in other wireless benefits and you have a very different competitive environment. While cable operators must build networks that run past each home they wish to serve, wireless operators just need to get within radio range – about 200 meters. Wireless operators can bundle mobile and home broadband services. Keep in mind that the average household spends over $100 per month for internet and TV.

The breakthrough is the use of expansive millimeter wave spectrum. At the start of 2016, there was a total of about 750 megahertz of spectrum available to mobile phone operators in the U.S. Then last summer the FCC allocated 3.85 gigahertz of spectrum in the 20 and 30 GHz bands for 5G. That’s a 500% increase in spectrum.

Why wasn’t millimeter wave spectrum exploited earlier? Signals at such high frequencies don’t travel as far and are blocked by physical objects. However, antennas at those frequencies are also smaller, so it’s practical to build sophisticated antenna arrays that overcome the propagation challenges by creating steerable beams. Field trials by AT&T and Verizon suggest that millimeter wave coverage is good provided that operators employ closely-spaced cells. (Perhaps that’s why AT&T and Verizon have spent $billions acquiring millimeter wave spectrum rights.)

Using 5G to provide internet and TV to the home involves a number of challenges. Local governments must approve small cell siting requests in a timely manner. Millimeter wave base station equipment must be made smaller and more power efficient. Customer equipment must be developed that the average homeowner can self-install. And it will take years and tens of billions of dollars to deploy hundreds of thousands of small cells.

Cable operators say there is no need to panic. Cable has its own upgrade paths, such as extending fiber deeper into networks and even using millimeter wave radio to connect to homes. Still, cable operators could find mobile operators are the most formidable competitors they have ever encountered.

5G network slicing ensures that mobile operators can pursue both the internet of things and broadband to the home. However, broadband is the more lucrative, immediate, and certain opportunity. Pursuing it will be very expensive, but mobile operators have everything riding on this bet.

Ira Brodsky is Senior Industry Analyst at Datacomm Research.

 

Why 5G will be a game changer

Originally published by FierceWireless at: http://www.fiercewireless.com/wireless/industry-voices-rysavy-why-5g-will-be-a-game-changer

Industry Voices—Rysavy: Why 5G will be a game changer

As impressive as the improvements have been with each new generation of cellular technology, the step from 4G to 5G will be more profound than any before and by the end of the next decade will reshape the broadband landscape. Specifically, 5G networks using mmWave frequencies will leapfrog over the capabilities of today’s hybrid fiber coaxial networks. As analyzed and quantified in a report I recently completed with Datacomm Research, “Broadband Disruption: How 5G Will Reshape the Competitive Landscape,” three technical innovations are converging to deliver unprecedented performance.

First and foremost, 5G will gain access to vast amounts of new spectrum. The first in a series of auctions in the United States targeted for 5G will allocate 3.85 GHz of licensed spectrum. Compared to today’s 750 MHz of licensed spectrum, this is a gigantic 500% increase. Second, small but powerful base station antenna arrays using massive multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) will be able to focus the radio signals into narrow beams, not only extending the range of the signals, but also by permitting multiple simultaneous beams, increasing spectral efficiency. Third, a small-cell architecture, inherent to the shorter range of mmWave signals, will further increase capacity by reducing the coverage area of each cell and, consequently, the number of users sharing the same spectrum. Our analysis shows that together, these innovations will result in almost three times the annual gain in wireless network capacity over the next 10 years compared to the average annual gain over the past two decades.

The resulting networks will prove formidable, crossing the chasm holding back today’s 4G LTE wireless networks: namely, the inability for most consumers to cut both the television cord and the broadband cord. 4G may have the throughput to support high-definition streaming, but such streaming can consume 1 Gbyte per hour, quickly bumping into the constraints of today’s unlimited plans, which throttle traffic after about 20 Gbytes. In contrast, 5G in dense deployments will not only have the capacity to handle today’s TV viewing on large screens, but will also scale to support ultrahigh-definition and even greater data-consuming applications such as virtual reality.

Such dense deployments will require hundreds of thousands of small cells nationwide. Verizon, for example, stated that it might eventually need 8,000 to 10,000 small cells in Boston alone. The small cells will also need much denser fiber networks than currently exist, but here again, technology advances will help. For example, 3GPP is studying a 5G capability called Integrated Access and Backhaul, with which a cell can use a 5G radio for backhaul, even relaying traffic through other sites. Thus, only a subset of sites will need a fiber connection. Siting for small cells may also become easier, as the FCC and state governments are both acting to modernize rules. Combined with other innovations, such as support for mission-critical applications, low-power IoT, and distributed computing that extends to the network edge, 5G will transform multiple industries.

A case in point is fixed wireless access, one of the first major use cases. Verizon is trialing prestandard 5G in 11 cities this year. Questions remain about the exact cell density needed and the precise effects of different residential layouts and landscapes on mmWave signals, but all of these challenges appear solvable, thrusting mobile operators and fixed-broadband providers such as cable companies into uncharted competitive territory. Cable operators have their own road map for increasing capability, as our report quantifies, such as increasing cable’s spectral bandwidth, but this requires reducing the length of coaxial cables and making large new investments to extend fiber closer to homes. Cable companies could themselves use mmWave in some scenarios, explaining Charter’s 5G research efforts. Just as long-distance telephony, once a thriving business separate from local telephone service, was obliterated by technology advances, 5G is likely to make the current separation of broadband into fixed and mobile services obsolete.

Despite requiring investments that could run into hundreds of billions of dollars, these new, ultradense networks, fueled by small cells and capacious millimeter wave spectrum, will be the railroads of the 21st century. They will unleash innovation of the likes that we can only begin to imagine. Get ready. The entire communications landscape is about to change.

Peter Rysavy, president of Rysavy Research, has been analyzing and reporting on wireless technologies for more than 20 years. See www.rysavy.com. In addition, he will be moderating Massive Broadband Network Densification—Unleashing the Opportunities of 5G.

 

Take another look at wireless charging

The market for delivering power wirelessly over short distances is potentially huge.

The most obvious application is wirelessly charging smartphones. We depend on our smartphones to work all day long. The need to charge them when their batteries are low is a fact of life, but connecting a wired charger is not always convenient or even possible. There are wireless charging pads for the home and office, and wireless charging docks for automobiles, and we are just starting to see wireless charging spots in coffee shops, restaurants, hotels, and airports.

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t even have to think about charging our mobile devices. Infrastructure embedded in the environment would automatically detect our devices, check their battery status, and charge them as needed. This concept is not as far-fetched as it might sound. Such infrastructure has been developed and is starting to be deployed. However, there still isn’t universal support for wireless charging in smartphones, laptops, and wearables.

(There is also another solution that doesn’t require a power outlet. A portable cell phone charger, such as the Flux, can fast-charge a smartphone. However, it’s an additional item to carry around and must also be recharged.)

Vertical and horizontal markets

How might wireless charging achieve broader acceptance? New technology solutions often succeed first in vertical markets. Business customers are willing to invest heavily in new technology if it solves a major problem or gives them a competitive advantage. That gives developers time to refine their solutions and squeeze out costs.

For instance, mobile robots are being used to automate warehouses and drones are being used to conduct dangerous inspections. However, to operate for long periods, robots and drones must periodically recharge their batteries. Wireless technology avoids the need for a physical connection so that recharging can be performed autonomously.

The use of IoT devices in factories presents an exciting opportunity. It’s not practical to run wires to hundreds of sensors scattered around a factory–particularly when many are attached to moving assemblies. Nor is it advisable to equip sensors exposed to heat or vibration with batteries. Seattle-based Ossia has developed wireless technology for powering sensors at a distance.

Pittsburgh-based Powercast has developed wireless power solutions for particularly challenging applications. For instance, large-scale cooking operations need to determine when meat has reached the desired internal temperature without opening the ovens prematurely and letting heat escape. Temperature sensors inserted into the meat can be queried wirelessly. Similarly, perishable drugs must be kept cool during shipment. Wireless power can be used to activate and read a temperature sensor inside the box without breaking the insulation and letting in warm air.

Office hoteling and business travel are two major horizontal markets for wireless charging. An employee who spends most of his or her time in the field can reserve an office and use wireless to access a desktop display, the local area network, and a charging pad. Likewise, business travelers will no longer need to carry chargers and power cables when wireless charging becomes a standard amenity at coffee shops, airports, and hotels. Powermat has begun deploying wireless charging infrastructure and to date has hundreds of locations in 11 states across the U.S.

Different flavors of wireless power

In theory, there are several technologies for delivering power wirelessly. However, most of the business activity is focused on two technologies: magnetic induction and radio waves.

Inductive wireless charging is already in wide use. The transmitter’s coil generates a magnetic field that induces a current in the nearby receiver’s coil. Electric toothbrushes use inductive charging: You can only place the toothbrush on the stand one way, and it ensures the two coils are right next to each. Powermat, the company that has begun deploying wireless charging infrastructure across the U.S., uses inductive wireless charging.

It would be nice to have a little more spatial freedom for wireless charging. This would permit coffee shops and restaurants to install wireless charging transmitters on the undersides of tables where they would be out of the way. A variant of inductive technology called “resonant” allows wireless charging over modestly greater distances (from about one inch to more than a foot away). However, there are tradeoffs: as the distance increases, the efficiency of the power transfer decreases and there is greater risk of producing electromagnetic interference. Witricity, a leading proponent of resonant wireless charging, points out that the technique is highly scalable and can be used in applications as diverse as smartphones, medical implants, mobile robots, and even electric automobiles.

The other major wireless charging technology uses radio waves and is called “RF” (radio frequency). RF offers the most spatial freedom, but it also poses challenges. Radio signals tend to fan out from the transmitting antenna, so a device with a small receiving antenna is likely to capture only a fraction of the power. There are ways to steer the radio waves, but care must be taken not to expose people to concentrated beams.

Energous is a proponent of RF wireless charging for consumers. The firm is pursuing a phased strategy that it says will ultimately enable charging mobile devices up to 15 feet away. The firm’s WattUp technology works with Bluetooth-enabled devices, using Bluetooth to check the device’s battery status and pinpoint its location. RF is a good solution for wearables, because RF receivers can be made small enough to fit into the smallest devices, such as hearing aids that are worn in the ear. Ironically, the wearable must be placed right next to the RF transmitter–much like inductive charging.

Ossia and Powercast use RF technology for both wireless charging and to power devices at a distance. Ossia has developed solutions for wirelessly charging Bluetooth-enabled devices and wirelessly powering battery-free devices such as digital price tags in retail stores and sensors in factories. Powercast uses its RF energy-harvesting technology to power sensors connected to RFID tags as well as to trickle charge battery-powered devices.

Wireless power industry associations

There are two industry groups developing standards and promoting the use of wireless charging/power. Several leading vendors are members of both.

The Wireless Power Consortium promotes the Qi (pronounced “chee”) standard for wirelessly charging smartphones. The WPC reports that there are more than 200 million Qi phones and chargers in use today. There are also 66 car models from 16 car manufacturers that feature factory-installed Qi chargers. The Qi standard includes both inductive and resonant options (though the latter extends range only about one-and-one-half inches). Members of the WPC include Apple, Dell, HTC, Huawei, iRobot, LG Electronics, Nokia, Qualcomm, Samsung, Sony, and Verizon Wireless.

The other major industry group is the AirFuel Alliance. In addition to inductive and resonant technology, the AirFuel Alliance supports RF, ultrasound, and laser technologies. The AirFuel Alliance was created through the merger of the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP) and the Power Matters Alliance (PMA). Members include Dell, HTC, Huawei, Intel, Lenovo, LG Electronics, Motorola Mobility, NTT DoCoMo, Qualcomm, Samsung, and Starbucks.

Inventor Nicola Tesla dreamt of wirelessly delivering large quantities of electric power over long distances. We can now see there is an even bigger opportunity for delivering small amounts of electric power over short distances. Five years from now we may shake our heads when we remember how people used to carry around their own battery chargers.

This post is based on commentary by Ira Brodsky that first appeared at Computerworld. Brodsky is a Senior Analyst with Datacomm Research and is the author of five books about technology. Brodsky focuses on mobile solutions for payments, retail automation, and health care.

5 challenges confronting enterprise drones

Forecasts for the drone market have been very aggressive.

One research firm predicts sales of drones will exceed $12 billion by 2021. Another says the market for drone-based business services is worth more than $127 billion. And the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) predicts that by 2025 the U.S. drone industry will create more than 100,000 jobs and add $82 billion to the economy.

While I’m optimistic about the long-term prospects for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), my research has identified five major factors inhibiting the adoption of drone-based solutions by enterprises:

#1: Today’s drones have limited flight endurance and payload capacity

Today’s drones can only fly for 15 to 30 minutes before they need to swap out or recharge batteries. And while there are drones that can carry payloads up to twenty pounds, five pounds or less is more common. To complicate matters further, there’s an inverse relationship between payload weight and flight endurance: increase the payload and you get less flight time.

What this means is that even in compelling applications, such as inspecting bridges and gas flares, there are frequent interruptions. And drones can’t even be considered for bigger jobs.

Help is on the way, however. WiBotic, a Seattle-based startup, has developed a system for autonomously charging drones and robots. When a specially-equipped drone touches down on similarly-equipped landing pad, it is charged wirelessly. Using this technology and a small fleet of drones, the interruptions can be minimized.

Drones are an attractive solution when there is work to be done in dangerous or dirty environments. It would be nice if they could not only complete inspections but assist installations and perform repairs. Olaeris and Top Flight Technologies have developed larger drones that can perform bigger jobs — in some cases by employing hybrid power systems (batteries plus combustion engine).

#2: Competing solutions refuse to die

Large corporations do not change the way they handle mission-critical tasks without studying, testing, and planning. While drones may be the superior solution, the old way of doing things has stood the test of time.

In many applications, drones look particularly promising, but there are several alternative solutions. Drones enable precision agriculture, but tractor-based sensors and satellite imaging systems can perform similar functions. If a drone detects that a field needs more fertilizer or pesticide, a small plane may still be required to do the spraying. Plus, many types of crops are commodities, and farmers are under pressure to spend as little on advanced technology as possible.

#3: Drones fly locally, but the power is concentrated in Washington, DC

The Federal Aviation Administration has done a great job ensuring safe air travel. It makes perfect sense for the FAA to retain the authority to keep drones at a safe distance from manned aircraft. However, when Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, it put the FAA in charge of shepherding the emerging drone industry. That’s not a good fit.

The FAA primarily manages large aircraft that fly long distances and cruise at high altitudes. Commercial drones are small and mainly fly short distances at low altitudes. More importantly, the FAA succeeds by minimizing and even eliminating risk. The drone industry can only succeed if we are willing to accept a little more risk.

While manned aircraft demand nationwide rules, the nascent drone industry requires flexibility. It doesn’t make sense to apply one set of rules to drones whether they are in Manhattan or rural Wyoming. Congress should pass legislation that gives state and local governments — in consultation with local users, businesses and citizens — the authority to decide when and where the benefits of drone use outweigh the risks.

#4: The industry is trying to develop the perfect traffic management system

The drone industry is putting too much time and effort in a futuristic project: developing a comprehensive solution for managing skies filled with drones. It’s not clear when drones will become a common sight in our urban skies. If it takes 20 years, there’s a good chance that whatever traffic management system is developed today will have become obsolete.

Instead of integrating drones with the national airspace system, it makes more sense to keep unmanned and manned air traffic separate. This is the core of Amazon’s proposed airspace model for drones. There simply isn’t enough drone traffic today to justify a highly complex and integrated system.

Alternatively, what’s needed today are simple technical solutions and tools for ensuring that drones don’t pose hazards to manned aircraft. Planes cruising at 30,000 feet don’t need to know the exact positions and headings of drones flying at 300 feet, but drone operators must be aware of restricted airspace (such as near airports), temporary flight restrictions (for a special event), and any helicopters or small planes operating in the vicinity. Companies such as AirMap are addressing this need.

#5: Concerns among the public about privacy, security, and safety

The public is understandably concerned about issues surrounding the use of drones. No one wants drones peeking into their windows. People may approve of law enforcement using drones to track down fleeing suspects, but they worry about government agencies using drones to spy on innocent citizens. And these days, everyone fears terrorists using drones to scout out targets or even deliver explosives.

Nor does it help when we hear about commercial airline pilots spotting drones nearby during takeoff or landing, drones interfering with helicopters engaged in firefighting operations, or neighbors feuding over drones. There should be severe penalties for drone users who endanger manned aircraft. There are also technical solutions, such as geofencing, that can be used to prevent drones from flying where they should not fly.

Naturally, the biggest concern is safety. The public will not accept drone delivery if there is a substantial risk of drones falling from the sky. The only way to develop drones that are highly reliable, and that can make soft landings in the rare event of an equipment failure, is to allow them to be used in places where citizens and their local government agree, so that manufacturers and operators can gain much-needed experience.

This post is based on commentary by Ira Brodsky that first appeared at Computerworld. Brodsky is a Senior Analyst with Datacomm Research and is the author of five books about technology. Brodsky focuses on mobile solutions for payments, retail automation, and health care.

How the FAA hinders innovation

The civilian drone market was predicted to take off like a rocket. But the market has stalled. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is keeping drone technology bottled up in the U.S. while it continues to move forward in Asia and Europe.

The opportunities for drones are real. Oil companies, electric power utilities, and mobile operators are already using drones to inspect vital infrastructure. Companies including Amazon, Domino’s, and Walmart are serious about putting drones into wider use. Everyone agrees that the industry must prove that drones are safe before they are allowed to deliver small packages to homes. But there is reason to believe that it can be done: Every day in the U.S. there are more than 23,000 commercial airline flights carrying well over 1 million passengers.

For now, the drone market is in a holding pattern. Several drone makers laid off workers over the last 12 months. The FAA recently reported that drone registrations are averaging about 8,300 per week. However, the forecast cited by the FAA in its 2017 annual report would require average weekly sales of more than 23,000 drones.

Many drone companies have tied their fate to a glacial FAA process that could be leading them down a blind alley. While many in the tech press (which moved sharply to the left during the Obama years) blame the layoffs on the growing dominance of Chinese drone maker DJI, Wall Street Journal columnist Gordon Crovitz points out that it was excessive FAA regulation that allowed a Chinese company to run away with the market (“While Amazon Waits, Drones Fly“).

The demise of Flytenow offers further evidence that the FAA is an obstacle to innovation. Flytenow operated a flight-sharing website for private pilots, enabling them to offer rides to the public to help defray expenses. The FAA contended that when pilots offer rides online they become common carriers, forcing Flytenow to shut down.

Finding a way Forward

The biggest challenge confronting the drone industry today isn’t safety — it’s politics. Apparently, we have become so accustomed to federal agencies riding herd over businesses that no one batted an eye when Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which appointed the FAA to oversee the emerging drone industry. That action was a mistake for two reasons.

First, the FAA primarily manages large manned aircraft that fly long distances and cruise at high altitudes (typically around 30,000 feet). Commercial drones are small and mainly fly short distances at low altitudes (below 500 feet). While the FAA should retain the authority to keep drones at a safe distance from manned aircraft, the FAA has neither the motivation nor the skills to shepherd an emerging tech industry.

Second, the FAA’s mission is to ensure safe air travel. Given that most passenger flights are interstate or even international, it makes sense for the FAA to apply one set of rules to the entire country. In contrast, one-size-fits-all rules do not make sense for drones used in environments as diverse as rural Wyoming and New York City. State and local governments — in consultation with local citizens, users, and businesses — should determine when and where the benefits of drone use outweigh the risks.

Despite the apparent good intentions of Chief Administrator Michael Huerta, who publicly called for his agency to be more flexible and “stop moving at the speed of government,” it took the FAA more than four years to create the first rules for small unmanned aircraft. Up until mid-2016, using drones for business purposes in the U.S. was actually illegal, though the FAA began issuing waivers on a case-by-case basis in 2014. The new Part 107 Rules were supposed to open the floodgates to commercial use of drones. In practice, the rules merely codified the uses that were already being granted waivers. The rules reduced the FAA examiners’ workload, but did almost nothing to spur business use.

A quick look at the restrictions contained in the Part 107 Rules reveals why. Drones may not be operated beyond line of sight of the operator, at night, or over people not directly involved in the drone’s operation. That means that drones still can’t be used to examine crop fields on a large farm, patrol a private facility at night looking for intruders, or transport small items between facilities several blocks apart without first obtaining special permission from the FAA. Nor are the restrictions likely to be relaxed anytime soon.

None of this is to suggest that the FAA should have no role in the drone industry. The FAA should remain in charge of keeping drones away from restricted areas such as airports. Otherwise, the FAA could serve as a resource to the states rather than as a national gatekeeper, developing airworthiness guidelines, providing operator training, and helping to field-test new solutions.

Lately there has been much talk in the tech industry about flying cars and small electric aircraft with vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capability. Proponents say these new forms of air transportation could help alleviate automobile traffic congestion in and around major cities. That’s precisely the kind of thing that gets inventors and entrepreneurs excited. However, if we are going to allow commercial air taxi service for people by 2025 as proposed by Uber, then shouldn’t we figure out much sooner how to permit drone delivery of small packages?

Ira Brodsky is a St. Louis-based consultant and the author of five books about technology. This article first appeared at American Thinker on May 20, 2017. Follow him on Twitter: @IraBrodsky