In 2000, the CIA used unmanned Predator drones in Afghanistan for surveillance, and eventually, they began using the drones to carry out unmanned air strikes. Today, several other nations are using drones regularly for a wide range of military operations.
The commercial drone industry has been trying to distance itself from the military uses of this technology by re-naming drones as UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) or UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) or naming them based on the number of propellers they have, like quadcopter or octocopter. Try as they might, none has proved more popular than ‘drone.’
BIM – Do you think that drones are disruptive innovations yet?
Michael – Well, as I mentioned before, many people refer to this time as the ‘Drone Age’, but like the automobile, I think it’s going to take at least another decade before drones become a disruptive innovation. The potential is there. Corporations, governments, and people see it. Personal drones are already cheap enough for the average person to own (several). Millions are already being sold worldwide. Conference and expos are being held all around the world.
The confluence of corporate investment of billions of dollars in research and development, an Administration that is pro-business and de-regulating industries like crazy, global interest, and advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, and mobile supercomputing are creating a ‘primordial soup’ known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Drones are just one small part of the technological tsunami we can expect in the next few years to come.
I may have oversimplified the disruptive innovation of cars by saying that they replaced the horse and buggy as a mode of transportation, but the disruption of drones is more complex. Drones serve multiple purposes based on the payload they carry, from data collection to transport. And that’s another point I’d like to make. I love flying drones and it’s easy to focus on the aircraft, but it’s NOT just about the drone itself. It’s about the data that the drone can collect. It’s about how we can process that data in real time using artificial intelligence, supercomputing, and the Internet of Things.
BIM – That’s a very important point, Michael. Can you expand a little more about the data?
Michael – Drones are carrying 4K cameras to capture images, video content, and thermal cameras are common accessories. But it’s the data processing that translates the information gathered into a report that the end user can understand and act on, again, in real time. Drones can be equipped to gather air, water, radiation, and whale snot samples. They can pollinate plants. The relentless pursuit of miniaturization will allow for a wider variety of payloads to be secured to a drone to collect an ever wider variety of data.
Other drones are designed to carry payloads like medical supplies, life-saving rafts, fishing line, pizza or people. Businesses in countless industries are using drones to reduce costs and risks to employees who are performing jobs in dangerous conditions. UAVs are replacing helicopters that have been used to get an aerial perspective for jobs like pipeline and power line inspections, post-disaster insurance adjusting, cinematic filming and coming soon…flying taxis. First responders, construction, building inspection, surveying, surveillance and precision agriculture are all industries implementing drone programs. And although I have been focused on flying drones, there are land-based drones like NASA’s Mars Rover and a host of underwater drones that don’t get the same amount of attention.
The technology already exists flying beyond line of sight. Collision avoidance, GPS, autopilot, and Bluetooth are also being used in the automobile and drone industries. There are drones that can be controlled with hand gestures. Battery development, which will extend flight times, is on the verge of a breakthrough. The European Union will be experimenting with a designated drone airspace in the coming year. We are so close to the next level.
BIM – Is ‘the next level’ the disruptive innovation you spoke of earlier?
Michael – More industries will be enhanced, rather than eliminated by drones as a disruptive innovation. Some dangerous, though well-paying jobs may be lost, in favor of drone pilots and eventually by automated drones with pre-programmed flight plans. It very well may take 10 – 30 years before the actual impact of drones and the Fourth Industrial Revolution on our present value networks can be measured.
The rise in popularity of drones does seem to mimic the increased popularity of the automobile 100 years ago. There are so many business applications for drones and the data they collect. Just as the infrastructure had to be developed for the car on our roads, the infrastructure has barely begun to be developed to support the drone industry in our airspace. As more automobiles made their way onto the roads, traffic congestion, traffic accidents, and fatalities became an issue. This resulted in the government creating licensing and safety regulations. Governments around the world are currently trying to understand how to license drones and create effective safety regulations before an avoidable disaster takes place.
BIM – Along with any disruption or change, there will always be those opposed to innovation. Not everyone is thrilled about the proliferation of drones, especially in their ‘backyard.’ The use of drones amongst the general public and businesses has raised concerns about the ethics behind the use of drones and just how safe they are.
Michael – The FAA is still trying to assert its jurisdiction over the National Airspace. That has not stopped state and local governments from passing laws and ordinances to curb or control local drone use. Local authorities contend that they have jurisdiction over land use, zoning, privacy, and law enforcement operations on the ground that is typically not subject to federal regulations.
In other words, local authorities are seeking control over where and when a drone can take-off and land because of their constituents’ concerns over privacy, safety, and potentially criminal activities. This would create a severe limitation for the advancement of the drone industry. This fight may have to be resolved by the Supreme Court at some point.