The Business Drones Are Coming

Major companies are finally jumping on the drone wagon

Speaking to DISRUPTIONHUB at the beginning of the year, Lee Barfoot, business development manager for drone training and consultancy company Consortiq, stated that drone technology had reached the stage of ‘convincing bosses’. Drones had taken off in the consumer market and were being used by smaller firms, but major corporations still showed reluctance. The benefits didn’t seem to be worth the risks. This month, 10 businesses including Apple, Intel, Microsoft and Uber were given permission from the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) to carry out drone testing projects in the US. It looks as if the ‘bosses’ have finally been convinced.

Business backing drones

The support of big businesses (other than Amazon, that is) has been a long time coming. Corporations have understandably shied away from drones, discouraged by uncertain regulations and a high level of risk. This attitude is evidently beginning to change, possibly motivated by a gradual familiarisation and recognition of their various benefits. This, of course, includes deliveries, but also surveillance and digital mapping. Companies such as Apple are working alongside official organisations to tap into the potential of drones. The tech giant’s project will capture images of North Carolina in partnership with the state’s Department of Transportation. The willingness of governing bodies to deploy drones has undoubtedly given the technology – which almost anyone can get hold of – greater legitimacy. Corporate interest may also be a reaction to US initiatives to fuel advancement. Last year, for example, the Trump Administration launched the Unmanned Aerial Systems Integration Pilot Programme which aimed to reposition the country as a leader in drone development.

Things appear to be moving quickly, and not just in the US. This April, the UK government announced new drone regulations for 2018. Despite a surge of support, the airborne machines are not ready to take full flight. It’s thought that the projects approved by the FAA will help regulators to work out how to best police UAV use. Legislation is the killer issue here – it will take a huge amount of projects to make these decisions. Fortunately, US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has hinted that dozens more applications could be approved within a matter of months. It’s certainly very vague, but promising nonetheless.

Pie in the sky no more…

Like robotics and 3D printing, drones are a physically obvious technological development. Given their many applications, it seems reasonable to expect to see them hovering on the horizon. But, if you can see a drone, then presumably it can see you too. Bringing UAVs into mainstream use will require a committed campaign of public reassurance that drones are not, in fact, spying on people. Nonetheless, it’s unlikely that drones will be trusted, especially when one of their main applications is surveillance. This will be a fundamental consideration for regulators. Privacy concerns aside, drones must also become more robust. The more complicated and varied that applications become, the more developers will need to account for different scenarios. Investment will be key. Luckily, the FAA’s clear support for drone development has opened up the opportunity for UAV consultancies and manufacturers to partner with influential businesses. This is good news for existing drone firms, as well as startups waiting for their big break. With both the government and big corporations on board, there is a higher chance of funding for young companies. The worry, of course, is that they will be nipped in the bud in a highly competitive market.

Corporate interest, government support and advances in technology have created the perfect storm for wider drone adoption. But although official organisations seem to be encouraging drone development, receiving official approval takes time. Every drone programme will have to navigate difficult questions surrounding safety and privacy, which necessitates defined guidelines and rules. At first, complicated or high risk proposals will be held back by regulatory debate, but the projects granted by the FAA could help to quicken the process. If these pilotless pilots can provide real value (without crashing into members of the public), then the drone market is set to become a whole lot bigger… But there won’t be room for everyone.

Will the support of big businesses fuel mass drone adoption? Do the FAA’s recent approvals signal a US desire to dominate drones? How could your business apply drone technology? Share your thoughts and opinions.

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