Despite the hype surrounding drones for the past decade, we are still only scratching the surface of what is achievable with this technology, particularly within the commercial sector. Hundreds of billions of dollars still await to be unlocked in this industry as these devices evolve from hobbyist cameras to integral, everyday business tools.
At the same time, this important conversation — which affects everyone from entrepreneurs and investors to regulators and the public — has been diluted by false claims about what is practical or possible.
In the past few years, there have been imaginative proclamations of aerial platforms with various capabilities, including painting water towers, trimming hedges, salting driveways, blowing leaves, scanning home gardens, carrying hammocks, and delivering dry cleaning. The most recent addition to this set is using drones to gauge people’s temperatures or health status, a use case that has many technical issues, safety concerns, and superior alternative methods.
A guide to finding realistic use cases for drones
Misleading expectations of what drones are able to accomplish have led to a distorted image of unmanned aerial systems over the past few years, confusing what is technically possible with what’s economically viable and legally permissible. The vast majority of drones currently available are manually operated, optimized for occasional hobbyist use, and lack the key functionality required for most most real-world business applications.
In addition, federal law currently requires that drones cannot operate beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of a pilot, over people, or over trafficked roads. This inhibits any real growth in this space. Together, these regulatory restrictions and technological limitations make most drones today impractical not only for the realistic use cases, but certainly for the unrealistic ones.
Whenever a new use case for a drone is proposed, several questions should be raised:
- Can something else, such as a camera strapped to a pole, do this job better and cheaper?
- Can a drone today perform this task not once, but 10,000 times in the real world without failure?
- Can it do so at a cost and frequency that make sense for the market?
- Is it legally permitted now or in the near future under government regulations?
If the answer to any of those questions is no, we can safely assume drones won’t takeover that particular task, at least not anytime soon.
The good news, however, is that a vast list of valuable use cases is available to us today, and legal authorization is imminent on both a national and global scale.
The state of the drone industry: 2020 and beyond
If the noise is filtered out, a soon-to-be golden era of commercial drones will be uncovered. In the past five years, there has been significant, material progress both in technology and government policy. And most markets, which were promised this revolutionary technology in the early 2010s, are eagerly waiting as drone companies take the final steps towards automation, reliability, safety, and government authorization. Companies are now ready to adopt the technology when it makes economic sense.
What does the trajectory of this industry look like from today forward? It starts with the most accessible and safest use cases. People should not expect to have a drone drop off a pizza to a Brooklyn apartment anytime soon. Instead, look for drones to help reduce pesticide usage on farms, to detect and repair in oil and gas, and to search for infrastructure damage and keep people out of harm’s way.
Truly automated operations will upend the current economics of using a drone, allowing data to be captured and analyzed at resolutions and rates never before possible. As a result, data will become the new essential utility in many of our older and critical industries.
Adoption will tend initially towards areas with lower population densities and more critical needs. This is why today we see more medical deliveries in rural areas, as opposed to burrito deliveries in dense cities. As data about successful operations is collected, and as technologies mature to higher and higher levels of reliability, suburban and urban areas will begin to see integration as well.
As we collectively move ahead as an industry, the best chance for swift growth is to have honest conversations about what is and isn’t realistic. If that can be achieved, the focus and energy of our entrepreneurs, engineers, investors, government regulators, media, and prospective customers can be put towards use cases that net real value now. The next generation of drones is only moments away; we need only to look for it in the right places.
About the author
Reese Mozer is the co-founder and CEO of American Robotics Inc. The Marlborough, Mass.-based company is an industrial drone developer specializing in rugged, real-world environments. Through innovations in robot autonomy, machine vision, edge computing and AI, American Robotics said it has created the next generation of drone technology: a fully-automated drone capable of continuous, unattended operation.
Mozer is an entrepreneur, leader, and roboticist with a decade of experience designing, developing, and marketing autonomous drone technologies for the commercial sector. He holds a master’s in robotic systems development from Carnegie Mellon University. Mozer is a member multiple drone and robotics industry standards bodies and associations, including the FAA Center of Excellence for UAS Research (ASSURE), the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the Commercial Drone Alliance (CDA), and the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council (MassTLC).