With so many technological advancements in the field of pilotless aircraft, UAVs (“Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” better known as drones) are poised to play a much larger part in the business model of a variety of different industries, as well as become commonplace in our everyday lives. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International forecasts that the drone industry will create more than 100,000 new drone jobs and $82 billion in economic impact within the first 10 years they become legal to fly. That’s a lot of opportunity.
A Brief Rundown
UAVs, true to their name, are simply aircraft without a human pilot aboard; their flights can be controlled either by a pilot on the ground, operating the aircraft remotely, or, more recently, autonomously by an onboard computer or robot. This gives UAVs a different set of advantages over regular aircraft, as they can perform work that is too rote or dangerous for manned aircraft, and as the technology advances, they can even do it much less expensively.
Until recently, the military has almost exclusively developed and operated unmanned aircraft, either for combat use, personnel training, or even logistics. Much has been made about Amazon’s push to deliver small packages straight to their customers’ doorsteps, but the military has already been there and back. For example, the U.S. Marines are already using K-MAX unmanned cargo helicopters, which can carry up to 6,000 pounds of cargo, to deliver front line supplies in southern Afghanistan. That’s about 7,400 Kindles, give or take.
Current Drone Regulations
But that’s just the defense industry. Right now, the theory of large corporations picking up drone technology for commercial use is still a way’s away from being fully realized, especially with the current federal restrictions. Drone use is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and according to their current rules, commercial drones are illegal—with exceptions issued on a rare, case by case basis.
However, the law is a little murkier than that, which is why many small-scale commercial operations are undeterred. Since the FAA is, by the numbers, such a small organization, with most of their attention focused on regulating civil aircraft and commercial airlines, plenty of people are making money off of their drones under the radar. And in March, a federal Appeals Court judge ruled that FAA drone regulation is invalid because they didn’t allow public comment when drafting their laws, which is a federal requirement; the FAA is appealing the decision and continues to insist that commercial drone use is against the law, at least until they have a chance to review their policies by September 2015.
In the end, even though the short term future of drone regulation is up in the air, commercial drones are still expected to be a multibillion dollar industry, regardless of how quickly the FAA can catch up; in fact, Business Insider Intelligence predicts that 12% of an estimated $98 billion in cumulative global spending on drones over the next decade will be for commercial purposes, and that’s not just for delivery and errands.
Drone Jobs and Tech Industry Growth
So can we expect an aerial army of Amazon and Fedex drones within the next couple decades? Maybe, but drones have the potential to transform the way many other companies do business as well, and not necessarily in all the ways you might expect. These sectors stand to reap just as many of the benefits of drone technology in the not-so-distant future:
Delivery and Fulfillment: Thanks to Amazon’s efforts, the highest profile potential use for commercial drones is final customer fulfillment—that is, delivering items directly to consumers. The possibilities are endless here; just about anything that can be carried by a delivery guy can also be carried by a drone. This isn’t just limited to items we usually think of when we want something delivered to us, like pizza or Chinese food; drones could also bring groceries from the supermarket and prescription drugs from the pharmacy right to our doorstep.
Logistics: In addition to delivery, they can also be used as a part of a larger logistics framework, with larger, heavy duty drones traveling between warehouses for inventory management. Not only could this speed up the intricate warehousing process, but it could also free up our roads and highways from delivery trucks.
Security and Law Enforcement: Drones have the potential to compliment or completely replace static, wall-mounted security cameras or even security guards. They could be especially useful in patrolling large commercial buildings such as factories, office parks, and power plants. On the law enforcement side, police could make use of security drones to supplement their presence at large public gatherings and events like marathons and street fairs. The Seattle and Miami-Dade police, along with many others, have already applied for special permits from the FAA to operate drones.
Journalism, Film-making, and Photography: Hobbyists are already using drones to take incredible aerial video and photographs, and it’s only a matter of time before professional filmmakers and photographers follow suit. The FAA has already agreed to consider a request by production companies to grant them an exemption to use drones for filming. The same principles would apply to journalists, who could use drones to capture footage they wouldn’t otherwise be able to obtain, such as in war zones or disaster areas.
Exploration, Aid Efforts, and Disaster Recovery: Because drones can go places that humans can’t, they could be ideal for search and rescue operations and delivering much-needed relief supplies to remote locations or disaster areas. Drones—the non-aerial kind—could also make a splash in our oceans, either searching for wreckage or exploring the uncharted depths of the ocean. Just earlier this year, after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing, underwater drones equipped with side-scan sonar took to the oceans to look for debris.
Agriculture: The Environmental Protection Agency is already using drones to monitor and manage livestock farms, technology that could easily be applied to commercial farms. Farmers could also use drones to spray for pests and diseases, analyze soil patterns, and protect crop health by checking for signs of drought and blight, as well as deliver parts to their machines out in the fields without having to halt harvesting operations.
Humans Needed to Build and Operate the Unmanned Drones
With so much potential, many companies are already in a race to be ready with products, with more and more hopping on the bandwagon every day.
So who is getting involved in the drone game? The heavy hitters include Amazon, naturally, and Facebook, who is looking into utilizing wifi-equipped, low flying drones in order to bring internet service to everyone in the world. (Maybe so they can sign up for Facebook?) Hollywood is throwing their hat in the ring as well; the major production companies are already lobbying the FAA for permission to use camera-equipped drones to film shots that would normally require lifts and helicopters. Defense contractors like Northrup Grumman have been developing drone technology for military use for years, and oil company BP was the first company granted an exception for commercial drone flights, which they used to survey their pipelines, roads, and equipment in Alaska.
These major companies definitely aren’t alone; there are plenty of smaller companies and startups already getting on board. There’s Tacocopter, for example, whose name is fairly self-explanatory; they deliver tacos right to your front door via drone. Many small operations use camera-equipped drones to take videos and pictures for weddings, real estate ads, and more.
And what about developers? Just like any other piece of technology, drones need specialized operating systems and software, which then need regular updates to keep them in the sky. And much like smartphones, new features and capabilities can be added with applications; the Pentagon is already envisioning an “app store” for their military drones.
If you’d like to get a head start on drone craze, programming a “smart” drone that captures video and processes QR codes, shapes, and movements actually isn’t as hard as you might think. In fact, you can do it on an Android phone, with just some OpenCV, C++, and Java, and that’s just the beginning.
While emerging drone technology brings about a host of new questions and concerns about security, safety, and privacy, there is no doubt that drones will provide a slew of opportunities for developers and businesses looking to integrate them into our everyday lives.