As is often the way with technological innovations, drones have many benefits but also cause concerns amongst some media and political commentators. Newspaper articles seem to be either full of wild-eyed enthusiasm for drones, such as personal deliveries from Amazon flying through your window, or quite the opposite: invasions of privacy, bringing down commercial airliners, delivery of bombs by terrorists etc.
As is to be expected, issues arise not with commercial users – who have no desire to expose their expensive drones to unnecessary risk - but with the growing ranks of hobbyists who spend from £45 - £450 on drones which may be small enough to carry in a backpack. How to “control” and educate such hobbyists, without stifling innovation, is currently exercising regulators.
It is hard to think of any development in recent years which has so much potential to reduce the cost of doing business than drones. Think of any situation where it would be costly, dangerous or take too long to get people to do something, and you have an obvious opportunity for drones.
Want to inspect the top of a building under construction, a pipeline or power line, an oil rig – send a drone. Need imagery close to trees – use a drone. Wildlife video (think Planet Earth II) – why call in a helicopter when a drone could be carried in the film crew’s vehicles?
In fact, there are many commercial demands for imagery which may be more quickly and/or cheaply met by a drone than by an aircraft. Drones are both complimentary to, but also competing with, high-res satellite imaging (a growing market).
Logistics - in the short term, perhaps more B2B than Amazon – are an obvious application, such as rapid delivery of medicines, resupply in remote regions (or, perhaps, after an earthquake or flood).
Commercial entertainment uses include drones flying in formation at Disney World (courtesy of Intel) and the sport of drone racing (which BSkyB has recently bought the TV rights for in the UK and Ireland).
Search and rescue? Crash sites? Temporary communications after disasters? Track endangered species? The list goes on.
Looking ahead, in what is a fast-moving market, we can expect machine learning to enable drones to operate with complete autonomy, with independent decision-making (perhaps reacting to data from in-field sensors), and potentially working as part of a swarm.
One of the clearest use cases is agriculture (which also has few risks of invading privacy or crashing onto property), where drones have the potential to provide crop intelligence or to deliver targeted weedkiller to weeds hiding amongst crops. The obstacle to greater utilisation of drones within agriculture lies principally in drone providers not undemanding what farmers are looking for, and therefore convincing them of the return on investment, than in any regulatory obstacles.
But regulatory obstacles do exist, particularly the requirement that drones not to be operated beyond visual line of sight, which results in many take off and landings, increasing cost. Future traffic management , or deployment of “sense and avoid” technology, may enable legal drone operation beyond visual line of sight. A maximum altitude of 400ft (120m) is a further restriction, albeit one perhaps less applicable for agricultural purposes.
These, and other, aspects of regulations are now being consulted on by the Government to ensure that regulation remains appropriate and doesn’t stifle innovation, where proposals for registration and electronic identification and tracking of drones may prove disproportionate and unworkable, particularly for leisure users.
Spectrum is also being considered, on a European basis, to ensure suitable spectrum is available for control (with cellular and/or satellite for beyond line of sight), traffic management (including collision avoidance) and retrieving data (including diagnostics) from drones. Current spectrum assignments didn’t envisage hundreds of thousands of flights.
techUK expects to hold a conference in the Autumn to explore the opportunities and potential obstacles around drones.
Guest blog from Julian McGougan, Head of Technology, techUK for the "Good to Great Connectivity for the UK" Week.