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The unmanned aerial systems (UAS) — or drones — sector continues to expand rapidly. Forecasters have predicted a boom in the Asian drone market, while the UK and France —  Europe’s largest military spenders —  have announced plans to expand their existing UAS cooperation to include a new combat drone project. Even NATO has got in on the act, with plans to invest $3.9 billion in high-altitude surveillance drones for the alliance.

With such a frenzy of activity, one could feel comfortable predicting an ever increasing number of drones in our skies in the coming decade. Think again. A lack of funds due to the financial crisis, regulatory air traffic constraints, and some over-looked practical questions about drone utility all presage a slow-down in this sector.

The first indicator of this slow-down comes in the area of research and development (R&D). While most agree the drone industry will only continue to expand, this comes with a cautious observation that declining defense budgets on both sides of the Atlantic will put a strain on UAS R&D programs.

Indeed, according to recent studies, to sustain current UAS projects, global industry investment will need to rise to $11.5 billion by 2015, with half this amount constituting R&D. That’s a big ask in a time of budget cuts.

In fact, the French combat drone project Neuron will not pass prototype stage due to fiscal constraints. Even more troublesome for drone advocates, the recent U.S. defense budget confirmed the extension of manned U2 surveillance flights, at the expense of the unmanned Global Hawk alternative.

It seems drone technology may be too expensive to develop in a time of austerity.

Another fundamental issue is that, currently, drones are forbidden from flying in domestic “un-segregated” airspace. The issues are mundane: air traffic controllers in the U.S. and Europe cannot trust that a drone will correspond to fixed flight patterns, and it has not yet been established how a drone can safely navigate amongst conventional aircraft.

Thus, larger UAS are currently grounded under all but exceptional conditions in civilian airspace, massively holding back the drone sector.

The issue is supposed to be resolved shortly. The U.S. aviation authority recently got a green-light from Congress to legislate for so-called “aerial insertion” of drones by 2016. Europe is supposed to have a similar legislation in place by 2015.

Except experts in industry doubt these deadlines are realistic. At a recent conference on this subject held here in Brussels, technical and air traffic control experts expressed concern that not enough research had been done into so-called “sense-and-avoid” systems to fully air certify drones.

Others pointed out that, should a drone be separated from its controller by a malfunction or sabotage, the aircraft would effectively become a “flying bomb” ready to crash into a European city — an unappealing prospect.

Experts on the day thus predicted we will not see aerial insertion until 2020 or later. Safety trumps science in the aviation sector, and drones just aren’t considered safe enough yet to fly whenever they please

Which brings me to a final point — the un-discussed problem of drone utility. A lot of breathless punditry has decried the coming era of constant surveillance by UAS. The logic of this discussion is apparently that, merely because drones are unmanned, they will be deployed in huge numbers.

This makes almost no sense, as it factors in nothing about the cost/benefit utility of doing so. People who point to the recent — extremely exceptional — use of a border guard Predator drone to catch a U.S. felon miss a fundamental point: this could have been done by helicopter just as easily. It also would have undoubtedly been cheaper to do so.

In fact, many of the law enforcement and other roles predicted for drones are already covered by traditional flight platforms. If police currently see no need to fly their helicopters 24/7 to watch us, why would drones suddenly incite them to do so?

Moreover, many drones — especially the medium-altitude (MALE) models most prized for surveillance — are very expensive. A Predator, for example, costs as much as $4.5 million, let alone operating costs.

Unless you predict that police budgets will expand in the coming years to afford these vast sums, then the argument that such actors will soon be buying drones like there is no tomorrow makes little sense.

Such platforms lack utility, and I personally doubt they will ever be operated in significant numbers by civilian actors.

All of the above indicates, to my eyes, that the current hype about the expanding use of drones will soon be moderated by reality. Drones are a new technology on the verge of greater exploitation — but this does not mean the financial crisis, air traffic laws and policing habits will fundamentally change overnight.

Under such conditions, I predict the sector will soon slow down.

Photo Credit: United States Airforce