Drones (also referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles - UAS) have been used for military applications for decades - even centuries - if you count the pilotless balloons used to drop bombs during the U.S. civil war. By the beginning of the 20th century, these pilotless aircraft were being fitted with cameras to perform aerial surveillance and used to test and train combat pilots and anti-aircraft gunners. In today’s world, military drones play a key role in combat.

Enough about that. Let’s spend some time talking about how drones are positioning themselves to play a part in our everyday lives. In fact, the potential for drones is so great – CES 2015 even dedicated an area on the show floor, called the Unmanned Systems Marketplace, where over a dozen companies exhibited their wares.

But in reality, the widespread use of drones is fraught with a number of issues – including heavy regulation, safety, security, privacy, data protection, insurance, liability and believe it or not – battery life – smaller drones can only fly 10-20 minutes before recharge is necessary.

Many Legal & Regulatory Obstacles

In the US, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has very strict rules around the commercial use of drones.

By law, any aircraft operation in the national airspace requires a certificated and registered aircraft, a licensed pilot, and operational approval. However, with regards to unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), the FAA is offering exemptions if the proposed use meets certain requirements. To date the FAA has approved 24 regulatory exemptions for commercial use of UAS operations. These include applications such as flare stack inspections; aerial photography and surveys; closed set filming; precision agriculture; Aerial inspection; and Aerial filming for motion picture and television. Additionally, the FAA recently released its proposed regulation on UAS weighing less than 55 lbs. (25 kg) – requiring daylight only and visual line of sight (VLOS) operation only.

Within the EU, there is regulation on larger drones (150 kg or more), but smaller drones are regulated by individual Member States of the European Union. However, with the increasing use of drones, the EU decided it was necessary for rules to be in place across the EU, which are expected to be in place by 2016.

I Spy

On a global basis – particularly for non-commercial applications there is great concern regarding privacy since many drones come equipped with cameras. 

In the U.S., state legislatures are debating if and how UAS technology should be regulated, trying to balance the benefits of their use with privacy concerns and their potential economic impact. To date, 20 states have enacted laws addressing UAS issues. Common issues addressed include defining what is considered a drone, how they can be used by law enforcement or other state agencies, and how they can be used by the general public.

The AMA (the Academy of Model Aeronautics) in partnership with the FAA has published recommended guidelines for Small UAS (defined as being less than 55 pounds) use. These recommendations include not operating over private property without consent; where the operation of radio control aircraft is prohibited; near open assemblies of people without permission; near or over sensitive infrastructure or property such as power stations, water treatment facilities, correctional facilities, heavily traveled roadways, government facilities.

But the reality is that rules and regulations will only likely be defined as the number of these devices grow, along with complaints against them.

I Want it NOW!!!

Retailers continue to look for an edge that will differentiate them from their competitors. One way they are trying to achieve this is via same-day delivery.  In December 2013, Amazon announced Prime Air — a future delivery system designed to get packages into customers' hands in 30 minutes or less using small unmanned aerial vehicles that can travel over 50 miles per hours and carry loads of up to 5 pounds. According to Amazon, 86 percent of their delivers are 5 pounds or less. Unfortunately, they have not been given FAA exemptions that will allow them to trial this service and current proposed regulation will also impact implementation. 

In China, Alibaba started a three-day drone delivery trial this month using remote-controlled quad-copters to carry items to customers who live near distribution centers in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. The 450 shoppers involved in the trial will also need to live within a one-hour flight of Alibaba's distribution centers in order to receive their goods.

UPS and FedEx have both publicly acknowledge that they were looking at using drones for delivery – but both delivery companies believed their use would be for niche applications.

Applications are Endless

The number of use cases for drones (beyond military and law enforcement) continues to grow. In Singapore, a restaurant will be using drones to serve food to their customers. The drones will be able to carry as much as 2kg of food on their trays and will be able to make their way around the restaurant via a computer program guided by infra-red sensors that are placed throughout the restaurant. However, the restaurant will still need a waiter to help remove the plates and drinks from the tray. 

The question is – who gets the tip?

Other applications that have successfully used drones include the following:

  • Hurricane Hunting
  • 3-D Mapping
  • Wildlife Protection
  • Precision Agriculture
  • Search & Rescue

In all of these applications, the drones perform valuable and safe surveillance and often perform these tasks at a fraction of the time and cost if performed by a human.

Particularly for search and rescue, a drone can cover large areas of inaccessible terrain even in the dark of night.

In February, 2014, The UAE launched its “Drones for Good” award. The goal is to find and develop projects that will save time, to shorten distances, to increase effectiveness and to make services easier.

The winner for the international category went to Flyability for its GimBall drone - a small, collision resistant drone for search and rescue that has been optimized for indoor use – such as earthquakes or other building collapse.

And let’s not leave out Google with its Project Wing – a delivery drone that is more focused on providing supplies in disaster relief scenarios.

Technology

Telecommunications. Sensors. Cloud Computing. Big Data. These are only a few of the technology areas that impact drones and provide a wealth of opportunity for companies. 

Drones that collect information need a place to store it (cloud) and a way to process it (Big Data). Drones will use the cloud to manage interactions with the physical environment, but also enable real-time transmission of imagery, and other sensory data. 

As such, sensors and the Internet of Everything will play a key role. Drones will be equipped with a variety of sensors to detect thermal imaging, pressure, audio, radiation, chemical, and biologics.  Additionally, new sensor technology focused on avoidance and control will be necessary to keep drones from colliding with obstacles (buildings, people, trees etc.), but small and light enough not to impact velocity or altitude.

Finally, many drones can be controlled from a smart phone – as they leverage the same technologies - accelerometers, gyroscopes, wireless antennas, autopilot systems, cameras, and processors – with control being handled by a simple app.

Just like driverless cars, and wearable technology; drones are poised to become part of our daily lives.