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  • Writer's pictureBy Joy Santamarina

Big things can come in small packages

Guam powers up commercial drone enterprise but the industry entails security concerns

As 2021 begins, there is an increased awareness of the need to rise up and recover. The urgency to rebuild is real and Guam has taken measures to help jumpstart new industries— one of which is the commercial drone.

Bill 217-35, now Public Law 35-118, modifies Guam law to entice and establish the potential of a commercial drone industry on the island.

“The law includes the commercial drone industry within the matrix of qualified industries that would qualify for Guam Economic Development Authority’s Qualifying Certificate program,” Sen. James Moylan, who authored P.L. 35-118.

“Plus, the language is broad enough to include businesses which manufacture commercial drones, or utilize it for aspects such as logistics, landscaping, training, or many other uses. In other words, the measure was not intended to be a one-size-fits-all, rather it is intended to attract various types of businesses who are tied into the commercial drone industry.”

With a new law designed to pave the way for a commercial drone industry on Guam, security issue is one aspect of this business that policymakers and security officials will have to watch out for.

In summer, the federal government has raised concerns about China-made drones, which, according to cybersecurity researchers, use an app that collects large amounts of personal information that could be exploited by the Beijing government. Hundreds of thousands of customers across the world use the app to operate their rotor-powered, camera-mounted aircraft. In October, Japan announced plans to prohibit its government from purchasing China-made drones.

Last year, researchers from NASA and the University of Guam an unmanned aerial vehicle to map a large stretch topography off the coast of the island.

The Guam team’s UAV is a 6-rotor carbon-fiber drone costing $15,000 and manufactured by Chinese technology company DJI. The Matrice 600 is equipped with GPS sensors, hard drives, a memory card, a $90,000 RGB ‘fluid cam’ that corrects the distortion caused by the surface of the water to photograph beneath the waves, and a 7-color ultraviolet sensor for testing NASA coral-identification technology. Including batteries, the assembly weighs about 12 kilograms.

DJI is one of the Chinese companies added by the United States to its blacklist.

Moylan said the new law contains language to abide by Federal Aviation Administration guidelines.

The commercial drone industry is globally huge and continues to grow. Originally used primarily for military purposes, drones— also known as unmanned aerial vehicles — have found their way into innovative commercial use that impact the efficiency and resiliency of major industries and not just for recreational photography and filming. Valued at U$5.80 billion, with an estimated 274.6 thousand units sold in 2018, the industry market is anticipated to register a compounded annual growth rate of ~56.5 percent up to the 2025 forecast period.

Last month, Bella Wings Aviation launched its FAA-regulated commercial drone business on Guam, offering various services including touch-free delivery, which the company said offers a better alternative to traditional delivery. “Drones can easily go anywhere on island and much faster than truck. Also, who’d rather wait in line when a drone could deliver a package directly to the customers? The drone won’t get lost either,” Bella Wings stated in an article posted on its website.

Bella Wings offers commercial Inspections, search & rescue, drone light show, aerial advertising, and video production.

The applications or uses of drones are varied and encompass many industries. One of the key factors that make drones attractive in the commercial sectors is that the UAVs have the ability to perform hazardous tasks, with higher precision and cost-effectiveness compared to the conventional methods.

In the power and energy sector, drones are used to remotely monitor assets such as power plants and utility pipelines with thermal imaging scanners as well as other applications.

In the farming industry, drones are used as part of precision agriculture methodologies by capturing visual and multispectral data that can track crop progression, manage nutrient inputs, and enable planting/replanting decisions.

In the media and entertainment industry, drones are used to capture not only mesmerizing visual footages but also news-breaking footages such as volcanic eruptions, war-torn villages, and natural disasters. It also enables first responders to assess situations immediately and more accurately before going in.

On Guam, the interest comes from different areas. For example, there is interest in launching a logistics company on island utilizing commercial drones. This can potentially have widespread use as evidenced by how logistics companies now use drones across their operations such as inventory management, carrying out security tasks, transporting goods from company to company or even distribution of products up to the end customer.

There is also interest in starting a training facility in conjunction with Guam Community College (GCC). Certifications are needed to qualify for drone commercial operations and therefore this is a crucial pillar for Guam to build a viable commercial drone industry.

“The industry is widespread,” Moylan said. “While trained individuals would certainly need to be hired, many other supportive functions would also require manpower. The QC law does require job creation, so any entity who wishes to avail of the incentives must provide GEDA with a business plan outlining what new jobs would be established.”

To this end, the new commercial drone industry on Guam is something to look forward to. It is not just about the higher use of technology or automation in industries. It is a piece of a bigger puzzle that urgently needs to be solved.

New industries need to be developed. New businesses need to open. Existing small businesses need help to recover. Jobs must be created. Economic exchange and activity must increase. Should all these pieces come together, then the road toward an economic resurgence becomes clearer. And in this path, the small drones can indeed bring in big things for Guam. (With additional reports from Mar-Vic Cagurangan)

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