For many people, the word “drone” conjures futuristic – and so-far unrealistic – ideas of aerial vehicles that program their own flight courses, act on their own volition and autonomously navigate around all environmental obstacles. For others, drones are an unneeded (and even unwanted) plaything, a superfluous way to get a pizza delivered to their door.
In reality, drones are somewhere in between: neither as fantastical as the hype proclaims, nor as gadget-y as detractors contend. While still in their infancy, drones are now being used across industries, with companies moving past the proof of concept stage and integrating them into their workflows. According to one analysis, drones are worth an estimated $127 billion, in terms of the labor and services they could perform for industries around the world.
- After any incident, particularly a natural disaster, structural inspections can be a dangerous undertaking. Using drones, adjusters can collect more timely and accurate data that helps them inspect properties and infrastructure for damage, as well as make recommendations to mitigate losses. By doing so, insurers can increase operational safety and efficiency, improve risk assessment and speed claims response times.
- Using aerial images, contractors, property owners, equipment providers and surveyors can generate new insights throughout the design-build lifecycle and track progress more efficiently. Drones can also help track equipment, measure earthwork quantities, monitor clash detection and reduce the overall risk exposure to workers.
- Businesses have used drones to safely and efficiently conduct audits, surveys and environmental checks. Tower inspections – such as those conducted by Verizon following Hurricane Matthew this past fall – have demonstrated a positive return on investment.
Blue Skies Ahead
As businesses continue to test drone usage and demonstrate ROI, drones themselves will increasingly be seen not as a gee-whiz technology but one deserving of clear-eyed, level-headed attention by business leaders and regulators, alike. Indeed, drone makers and service providers are fully aware of the technological and regulatory issues that could accelerate—or derail—the commercial drone industry. Current hot-button issues include:
- Distinguishing between “autonomy” and “automation”: Despite the hype, drones today cannot perform all their functions without operator intervention or supervision. Humans are still required, whether to preprogram the flight path, take control when something goes wrong or avoid an unexpected environmental obstacle. As the technology improves, humans will play a less hands-on role in actual flight operations, but one can never lose sight of the fact that a high level of responsibility is required to operate drones in the national airspace.
- Instituting responsible policies: The Commercial Drone Alliance is working with policymakers to responsibly move into the next generation of commercial drones. Goals include creating jobs and building the nation’s economy; promoting drone innovation with an emphasis on safety, privacy, and security; implementing a risk-based approach to drone regulation; and expanding research and development of drone technology as the industry continues to grow.
- Advancing technology capabilities: Recent developments include cell-tower control of drones (particularly promising for package delivery) and the miniaturization and falling prices of new sensor capabilities (such as LiDAR and chemical “sniffers”), which introduce new industrial uses.
- Evolving FAA regulations: Under the FAA’s new Part 107 waiver system, U.S.-based operators can now conduct “beyond visual line of sight” (BVLOS) operations. The waiver system also allows for flights to occur over people and at night.
- Overcoming challenges: Key challenges include developing an effective oversight system for determining who can perform advanced drone operations, dealing with spectrum rights and restrictions, and establishing international regulatory convergence.
By 2020, the FAA projects seven million drones will be actively flying in U.S. skies. That’s less than three years from now – clearly it’s time to start seeing drones not as a fantastical future but for the commercial reality and opportunity they present today.
Our guest blogger is Brandon Torres Declet, CEO and Co-Founder of Measure, a drone-as-a-service company in which Cognizant invested earlier this year. For more, see Measure’s blog, http://www.measure.aero/insights.