5 challenges confronting enterprise drones

The drone market is not taking off as expected. Here are five factors inhibiting adoption by enterprises.

drone at work
Credit: Nokia

Forecasts for the drone market have been very aggressive.

One research firm predicts sales of drones will exceed $12 billion by 2021. Another says the market for drone-based business services is worth more than $127 billion. And the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) predicts that by 2025 the U.S. drone industry will create more than 100,000 jobs and add $82 billion to the economy.

While I’m optimistic about the long-term prospects for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), my research has identified five major factors inhibiting the adoption of drone-based solutions by enterprises:

#1: Today’s drones have limited flight endurance and payload capacity

Today’s drones can only fly for 15 to 30 minutes before they need to swap out or recharge batteries. And while there are drones that can carry payloads up to twenty pounds, five pounds or less is more common. To complicate matters further, there’s an inverse relationship between payload weight and flight endurance: increase the payload and you get less flight time.

What this means is that even in compelling applications, such as inspecting bridges and gas flares, there are frequent interruptions. And drones can’t even be considered for bigger jobs.

Help is on the way, however. Wibotic, a Seattle-based startup, has developed a system for autonomously charging drones and robots. When a specially-equipped drone touches down on similarly-equipped landing pad, it is charged wirelessly. Using this technology and a small fleet of drones, the interruptions can be minimized.

Drones are an attractive solution when there is work to be done in dangerous or dirty environments. It would be nice if they could not only complete inspections but assist installations and perform repairs. Olaeris and Top Flight Technologies have developed larger drones that can perform bigger jobs -- in some cases by employing hybrid power systems (batteries plus combustion engine).

#2: Competing solutions refuse to die

Large corporations do not change the way they handle mission-critical tasks without studying, testing, and planning. While drones may be the superior solution, the old way of doing things has stood the test of time.

In many applications, drones look particularly promising, but there are several alternative solutions. Drones enable precision agriculture, but tractor-based sensors and satellite imaging systems can perform similar functions. If a drone detects that a field needs more fertilizer or pesticide, a small plane may still be required to do the spraying. Plus, many types of crops are commodities, and farmers are under pressure to spend as little on advanced technology as possible.

#3: Drones fly locally, but the power is concentrated in Washington, DC

The Federal Aviation Administration has done a great job ensuring safe air travel. It makes perfect sense for the FAA to retain the authority to keep drones at a safe distance from manned aircraft. However, when Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, it put the FAA in charge of shepherding the emerging drone industry. That’s not a good fit.

The FAA primarily manages large aircraft that fly long distances and cruise at high altitudes. Commercial drones are small and mainly fly short distances at low altitudes. More importantly, the FAA succeeds by minimizing and even eliminating risk. The drone industry can only succeed if we are willing to accept a little more risk.

While manned aircraft demand nationwide rules, the nascent drone industry requires flexibility. It doesn’t make sense to apply one set of rules to drones whether they are in Manhattan or rural Wyoming. Congress should pass legislation that gives state and local governments -- in consultation with local users, businesses and citizens -- the authority to decide when and where the benefits of drone use outweigh the risks.

#4: The industry is trying to develop the perfect traffic management system

The drone industry is putting too much time and effort in a futuristic project: developing a comprehensive solution for managing skies filled with drones. It’s not clear when drones will become a common sight in our urban skies. If it takes 20 years, there’s a good chance that whatever traffic management system is developed today will have become obsolete.

Instead of integrating drones with the national airspace system, it makes more sense to keep unmanned and manned air traffic separate. This is the core of Amazon’s proposed airspace model for drones. There simply isn’t enough drone traffic today to justify a highly complex and integrated system.

Alternatively, what’s needed today are simple technical solutions and tools for ensuring that drones don’t pose hazards to manned aircraft. Planes cruising at 30,000 feet don’t need to know the exact positions and headings of drones flying at 300 feet, but drone operators must be aware of restricted airspace (such as near airports), temporary flight restrictions (for a special event), and any helicopters or small planes operating in the vicinity. Companies such as AirMap are addressing this need.

#5: Concerns among the public about privacy, security, and safety

The public is understandably concerned about issues surrounding the use of drones. No one wants drones peeking into their windows. People may approve of law enforcement using drones to track down fleeing suspects, but they worry about government agencies using drones to spy on innocent citizens. And these days, everyone fears terrorists using drones to scout out targets or even deliver explosives.

Nor does it help when we hear about commercial airline pilots spotting drones nearby during takeoff or landing, drones interfering with helicopters engaged in firefighting operations, or neighbors feuding over drones. There should be severe penalties for drone users who endanger manned aircraft. There are also technical solutions, such as geofencing, that can be used to prevent drones from flying where they should not fly.

Naturally, the biggest concern is safety. The public will not accept drone delivery if there is a substantial risk of drones falling from the sky. The only way to develop drones that are highly reliable, and that can make soft landings in the rare event of an equipment failure, is to allow them to be used in places where citizens and their local government agree, so that manufacturers and operators can gain much-needed experience.

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