“All operations conducted in civil airspace must meet minimum levels of safety. […] Presently, the [we are] drafting a rule to address small [drones].” –the Federal Aviation Administration
Forget for a moment the dramatic news clips you’ve seen of Predator drones taking off to bomb battlefields. Yes, they are drones — unmanned vehicles that can fly without human assistance — but they only represent a narrow slice of what drones are all about. There is a huge potential for how private, commercial drone use can change our lives.
When we’re talking about commercial drones, we’re generally talking about a small, GPS-enabled remote control aeroplanes or helicopters with really advanced autopilot that can handle all aspects of a flight, from takeoff to landing. For such a straightforward idea, it has huge implications that could shake up a number of industries. But American regulators obviously want to make sure that drones can be employed safely.
Consider this quick thought experiment.
It’s some indeterminate amount of time in the future and seeing a commercial drone is as commonplace as seeing a UPS truck today. Farmers use them to more quickly and efficiently dust their crops. Search and rescue missions rely on them to get to vantage points that an unaided human never could. The pizza delivery man is a trained and licensed professional drone pilot who works from home. And all of this happens with the government’s blessing.
In this hypothetical world, it’s no longer unusual to look up to the sky and see it riddled with unmanned aircraft going about their business. In fact, a sky full of drones is the new normal. What would that world be like, practically?
Amazon got the general population interested in drones with the announcement that it has been experimenting with “octocopters,” unmanned drones that will supposedly be able to deliver an item to your house within 30 minutes of ordering it. “Amazon Prime Air,” as it’s being called, won’t be deployed for customers anytime soon. But people seem to love the idea. Here’s the 60 Minutes video that got everyone’s attention.
Zookal, an Australian company that sells textbooks, recently partnered with Flirtey, a drone company, to facilitate speedy delivery of textbooks to customers who order them. Zookal CEO Ahmed Haider told us that the Amazon drones behaving as demonstrated in the video is only “an eventuality, however with the current legislation in America its just a matter of when rather than if.”
“Our technology is a little bit more advanced than Amazon in that we don’t actually lower the drone it hovers above the smartphone of the customer and lowers the parcel to the customer to collect so the drone is never touching the ground,” he said.
Package delivery is already a big business. The United States Postal Service delivered 3.5 billion packages in 2012, netting $US11.6 billion. In the same year, UPS delivered 4,107,000 packages. If they were to implement delivery-by-drone, they could do more delivery with the same number of employees — drones don’t need overtime pay. But by no means will unmanned aerial vehicles put the postman out of a job. There are some limitations to the weight a drone can carry. Amazon’s drones can schlep around five pounds. Flirtey’s drones can carry some textbooks.
But if you’re buying a fridge or a TV, you’re still going to need someone to drive it to your house.
Drones are more like bicycle messengers, only in the sky. Commercial drones can carry lightweight parcels quickly and easily over short distances. Booming metropolitan areas like New York City may very well find that drones are easier and cheaper than a human speed demon on two wheels.
When commercial drone use is commonplace, we’ll see a brand new field of employment open up. People will need to program, monitor, and pilot business drones. “Drone pilot school” may very well become a new type of technical school, akin to job training programs offered by places like DeVry University and ITT Technical Institute.
Amazon says that 84% of its orders are under five pounds, and are therefore deliverable by drone. Let’s do some exploratory maths and estimate that 75% of UPS deliveries meet the same criteria. That means that 3,080,250 packages could be delivered by drone, greatly reducing the workload on humans. This is huge. If commercial drone delivery is properly implemented, it means fewer cars and trucks on the road and increased convenience for customers and employees alike. But it won’t be easy — there are a lot of deliveries to be made.
While it’s the most obvious and immediate application, drones will absolutely expand beyond deliveries. They have already proven invaluable for cinematographers seeking impressive camera shots, real estate agents filming sweeping tour videos of homes, and farmers analysing their crops and dusting them with pesticides.
Haider even brings up the compelling idea of drones as tour guides — “I think an area that has not yet been explored and would be interesting is navigation with drones of a smaller size. [For example,] a drone the size of a baseball [could show] people around new environments like universities or guide tours in museums.”
This is already a reality. MIT has drones designed to show people around its complex campus. Check it out:
Drone proponents have two major hurdles to overcome before we can see our unmanned flying friends in action for commercial purposes. There are obviously safety concerns — they need to avoid birds, planes, people. Then there’s the legal stuff that needs to be addressed. If you wanted fly a commercial drone in the United States, the framework doesn’t yet exist to do so legally.
Australia’s regulators are quite receptive to commercial drones. Haider told us that “there are already multiple [Australian] companies registered that are using drones for commercial use for everything from fighting bush fires to amateur photography at sporting events. Flirtey will be the first company to allow delivery as a service.” And on the matter of safety, Haider is optimistic: “[Our drones] have fail safe mechanisms, shielded guides, and we’re working on some new proprietary safety mechanisms.”
What began as military controversy has now become more of a conversation about making our lives easier at home. It will take a while for the FAA to draw up rules for this, but all signs point to commercial drones as an inevitability.
The future will be autonomous and airborne.