Drones: From Toys Into Tools

Drones have broken into the consumer market, and now they’re speeding into industry 

Drones, also known as UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems), have been a huge success with consumers.  Commercial applications to date include carrying important medical supplies, collecting aerial data, and improving visibility during a range of operations.  As more real life scenarios begin applying UAVs, it’s only a matter of time before drones gain the support of major corporations. . . so, what are the main uses and opportunities associated with the technology, and what could be done to accelerate adoption?

Turning toys into tools

By 2020, the commercial drone industry is predicted to reach a market worth of $2.4bn. As well as gaining momentum with consumers, the airborne technology is transforming various business operations. This gradual corporate recognition is likely to continue as an important theme over the course of this year. But what exactly can drones offer businesses? Lee Barfoot, business development manager for drone training and consultancy company Consortiq, explains that one of the most beneficial aspects of drone use is safety.

“For surveying, for example, why risk somebody being on the end of a rope when you can train a UAV operator to do the same job quicker and more efficiently, safely and cost-effectively?” he says. “Consortiq wants more awareness of the uses and applications of drones, and what they might be able to do for a business.”

Other potential applications include search and rescue missions, emergency services, media and sports coverage, and security. And, because they are so easy to integrate and don’t require complicated programming, they aren’t confined to businesses with an awareness of aviation or disruptive technology.

Universal UAVs?

By now, the usefulness of drones is a largely accepted fact. SMEs have been quick to apply them within their businesses, but the next obstacle for the technology is finding big businesses to do the same. While there is scope for universal UAVs, one of the biggest barriers to drone adoption is a lack of understanding.

“We refer to the technology as drones, UAS, UAVs and unmanned vehicles, so there is a lot of terminology,” says Barfoot, “We are now at the stage where we are trying to determine how we get bosses to recognise the potential use and importance that UAS operations can have, and the impact they can have on the businesses.”

Another major issue concerns the negative connotations based on somewhat shady military operations. This has not been helped by hobbyists who have flown their drones illegally or unsafely, to the detriment of wider users. A further obstacle lies in finalising regulations. In light of drone owners ignoring or failing to successfully comply, this has become even more prevalent. So, what can be done about it? Barfoot believes that more should be done to communicate with decision makers.

“There are a lot of CEOs and upper management that if it weren’t for their subject matter experts within the businesses, would not know what we’re talking about. This is about using disruptive technology to enhance what these different businesses do. The terminology is important, trying to simplify it and break it down.”

In future, engineers and regulators need to work together to build UAVs with compliance in mind. For example, if drones could be programmed to avoid certain situations, then they may be less of a threat to public safety. Once these issues can be ironed out, adoption rates will rocket.

The disruptive impact of drones

If applied en masse to major business operations, drones could become the ultimate overseer. They could be used to scope out situations that, for whatever reasons, humans can’t. Instead of replacing human employees, drones work to augment human knowledge and therefore how they handle certain situations. What drones are likely to bring the most disruption to, though, are other aerial machines. For example, the helicopters that are currently used to support police operations are often in high demand, costly, and not as quick to deploy as drones would be. The wider corporate acceptance of drone technology will also be good news for flying car enthusiasts, who will face an even harder battle with regulators.

Barfoot believes that if drone technology is promoted and handled properly, it could be a game-changer for a number of companies worldwide. The reasons why big businesses haven’t pushed forward with drone adoption can be summed up by risk. Is it worth investing in UAVs given the disjuncture between rules and usage, and the enduring negative associations? SMEs, aid groups and other organisations are gradually proving that it is. At the same time, businesses need to be aware that any digitally based system could be hacked and misused – this is an even more sensitive issue when it could involve physical harm to members of the public. The next vital step towards achieving mass adoption will be to establish a common language.

“What is normal within the drone industry isn’t necessarily understood outside of it,” Barfoot explains,

“But the technology could really benefit these companies that do not yet realise the benefits.”

Could your business or industry benefit from the application of drone technology? In your view, how has the media portrayed drones? Is a lack of understanding the major barrier to adoption? Comment below with your thoughts.