Ten years ago, drones were mainly used by spy agencies and the military. Now they are finding all sorts of recreational and commercial uses.
A drone can video you as you ski down a mountain. Or it can inspect the top of a cell tower, eliminating the need for someone to make a dangerous climb. A "hover camera" can follow caregivers in the ER, helping them avoid mistakes.
The release of rules for commercial drone use by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), expected any day now, will bring us a step closer to a future in which packages are delivered to your door within minutes.
Here are six reasons why there will likely be a future for drones in your enterprise:
1. Drones save time, money, and even lives
Drones aren’t just for thrilling aerial photography. Drones can complete inspections quickly -- avoiding prolonged shutdowns of gas flares. Drones can examine critical infrastructure such as electric transmission towers and bridges. Drones avoid sending inspectors into dangerous environments.
UK-based Sky-Futures is using beach ball-shaped drones to inspect the insides of hazardous chemical storage tanks. Cyberhawk Innovations, headquartered in Scotland, uses drones to inspect things that would be difficult and dangerous for people to inspect, such as the underdecks of offshore oil rigs.
According to Sensefly, a provider of drone-based mapping systems in Switzerland, regular flyovers enable early identification of problems in the crop fields of large farms. Drones avoid the expense of manned flyovers and can be used when cloud coverage makes satellite imaging impossible.
Drones are invaluable for search-and-rescue, fighting wildfires and news gathering. Persistent Systems, a developer of mobile ad hoc networks, has teamed up with Aeryon Labs, a provider of small unmanned aerial vehicle (sUAV) systems, to make fighting forest fires safer and more effective. By equipping both fire fighters on the ground and drones with broadband mobile radios, the command center knows exactly where each fire fighter is in relation to the fire and can show them (using body-worn radios with tablets) exactly where to go. Mobilicom, an Israeli firm, has also developed a mobile mesh technology that enables broadband communication between drones and users on the ground in urban areas.
In the future, large corporations will employ fleets of drones to further automate their internal operations. For instance, Wal-Mart is experimenting with drones to better manage warehouses.
2. Drones take advantage of developments in related fields such as mobile phones and robots
One reason we are seeing so much progress in drones is that algorithms have been developed to ensure stable flight, make piloting easy, and even enable autonomous operation.
The same chips that power cell phones can be used by drones. Intrinsyc provides reference designs for drones based on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips. Like mobile phones, drones can perform multiple tasks, such as controlling flight paths, gathering visual data, tracking location and communicating with the ground.
Drones may also be thought of as flying robots. One view is that drones developed for hobbyists evolved to perform tasks that were previously accomplished at far greater cost and risk using helicopters and small airplanes. Olaeris believes, in contrast, that many enterprise applications require an unmanned aircraft capable of vertical takeoff and landing -- what the firm refers to as “the 21st century helicopter.”
3. New FAA rules are expected to end years of uncertainty
Many people say that the FAA has held back the U.S. drone industry. Technically, there’s no legal way in the U.S. to just start using drones in commercial applications. Companies must apply for exemptions under Section 333 of the FAA’s rules for unmanned aircraft systems (UAVs). In fact, until recently hobbyists had more rights than commercial operators. A recent ruling finally allows commercial operators to fly drones up to an altitude of 400 feet.
The FAA has promised to enact its first rules for commercial use of drones in mid-2016. However, commercial users will be limited to visual line of sight operation. But there are key applications in which maintaining visual contact is problematic, such as inspecting pipelines hundreds of miles long and the insides of large storage tanks.
While the FAA has been slow to act, it seems genuinely committed to the integration of drones in the national airspace system. Some of the FAA’s caution is no doubt due to concerns about air travel safety and the potential use of drones by terrorists.
4. New technical capabilities are making drones more useful
Today there are drones for every need. Rotary wing drones are good at hovering and fixed-wing drones can fly long distances. Though most battery-powered rotary wing drones can only stay aloft for about 20 minutes, tethers can be used to deliver power, enabling them to hover over the same spot for days.
In addition to algorithms that ensure stable flight, software has been developed for autonomous flying. A drone may be configured to automatically return to its launch point if it loses contact with the ground or senses that its battery charge is low. Drones can be programmed to stay within a geo-fenced area. Algorithms are being developed for collision avoidance and software is being developed to enable coordination between drones and larger aircraft.
Popular add-ons for drones include sensors, cameras and data storage devices. Spotlights can be mounted on drones for night-time search-and-rescue missions. Drones can be equipped with retractable cords for delivering packages (sidestepping the problems associated with landing).
5. Tools are being developed to ensure safety, privacy, and security
The public has three areas of concern regarding drones. First, drones must not create safety hazards for existing air traffic. Second, drone operators must not be allowed to spy on homes. Third, precautions must be taken to prevent terrorists from using drones to attack crowded venues such as sports stadiums and outdoor music festivals.
A number of safety solutions have been proposed or are under development. Amazon suggests keeping airspace for drones and larger aircraft segregated, while Google proposes the use of technology to ensure that all aircraft are kept at a safe distance from each other and tall objects.
AirMap has developed a low-altitude airspace management solution that includes a geographic information system covering the entire U.S. that can be accessed via the Web or iOS devices. PrecisionHawk has teamed up with Verizon, Harris and DigitalGlobe to provide “safety as a service.” The firm’s LATAS (low altitude traffic and airspace safety) leverages information about obstructions, existing aircraft tracking solutions and real-time communication with drones (via cellular LTE).
Privacy rules have yet to be worked out, but people don’t want drones photographing them in their backyards, peaking inside their homes or providing exterior details useful to burglars.
SkySafe has developed technology to disable drones that enter restricted areas such as the airspace around stadiums and nuclear power plants.
6. The industry is moving cautiously but steadily toward achieving its Holy Grail, drone delivery
Companies including Amazon, DHL, Domino’s, Google and Walmart have expressed keen interest in drone delivery. Drones can enable ultra-fast delivery in urban areas of items ordered from smartphones. There is also excitement about using drones to deliver medical supplies to remote locations. Companies such as Flirtey and Matternet are already demonstrating these capabilities.
Widespread use of drone delivery faces a number of challenges. While delivery vans and drivers are expensive, the cost is spread over many packages. Still, there are situations in which people might pay quite a bit extra for fast delivery, such as when they suddenly realize they need tools, supplies or gifts.
Safety and liability are also major concerns. What happens if a drone loses power or otherwise fails in mid-flight, causing damage to property or injuring someone? Even if this were extremely rare, it would generate a great deal of bad publicity. In heavily populated areas, should delivery drones fly over homes and backyards or should they keep to public roadways?
Delivery drones will surely be used in applications for which cost is not a concern, such as rushing defibrillators to treat persons in cardiac arrest. In many large cities, you can't count on getting there quickly enough via ground transportation.
We live in a world that values speed and safety. Drones have come a long way from just chasing after the bad guys.
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