You start your day by eating breakfast with strawberries that were picked off of a farm in California less than 24 hours ago. You brush your teeth, get dressed, then hail an Uber, which flies you 80 miles in 18 minutes. Once you arrive, you walk into an office with uninterrupted internet connection. For lunch that day, you order Chinese food which is flown straight to your office window, located on the 32nd floor. And when you’re ready for a break, you take a walk outside, never looking both ways before crossing the street.
The potential of drones to disrupt how we live is limitless.
Freight drones can carry perishables, shortening food supply chains. Autonomous drones can transport people more efficiently than trains or cars. Strategically flown drones can expand broadband and finally make internet ubiquitous. Drones can pull off package fulfillment in under 15 minutes. Drones even have the potential to usher in a Jetson’s era, changing the architecture of our cities.
This might sound more like the setting of a sci-fi Bruce Willis film than reality, but experts believe that a drone technology enabled future is closer than we think. Economists are predicting that we’re on the brink of mass-adoption of drones, and that’s only the beginning.
A Drone-Powered Future is Closer Than We Think
Goldman Sachs predicts $100B market opportunity by 2020, and PwC estimates about $127B, with the fastest growing use cases in infrastructure, agriculture, and delivery. The number of drones purchased for these purposes is projected to 10x in the next 7 years. These stats are hard to swallow, considering the current market size: about $1B for drone services.
To explain this incredible growth, we took a look at every hurdle between the current state of drone services and widespread drone adoption:
- Technical: Only three years ago drone technology was considered unreliable and difficult to operate. The industry, then curbed by FAA regulations, was fragmented and primarily comprised of hobbyists tinkering in their garages. In the past few years, however, companies like DJI and Parrot have made significant strides in making drones safer and more accessible.
- Regulatory: The FAA strictly forbade commercial use of drones until September of 2014 and still gets a lot of heat for being overly conservative on the technology. In just the past year, however, the FAA has shown interest in opening up the airspace and loosening laws around flight permits.
- Social: For decades, people only knew about drones in their military capacities: being used for airstrikes and surveillance. Only in the past year and a half have we started seeing headlines of drones being used for good. Consumers and businesses alike are just now warming up to the flying, buzzing contraptions.
Here’s how far we’ve come in overcoming these hurdles, and what’s really standing in our way.
A few years ago, we saw a lot of headlines about the danger of flying 20 pounds of hardware through the air with what looked like an Xbox controller. But today, we seem to be hearing more about whale watching, mapping, and life-saving than any technical limitations. So exactly how mature is drone technology?
Drone research group, Air Drone Craze, has broken down the development of drone technology into generations. Generation 1 is basic remote control, while the last generation, Generation 7, is autonomous, fully airspace-aware drone flight. We’re currently in Generation 6— achieving “Commercial Suitability, Safety & Regulatory Standards Based Design, Platform & Payload Adaptability, Automated Safety Modes, Intelligent Piloting Models and Full Autonomy, Airspace Aware.”
In English, this means:
- Pilots have precise control over drone flight and landing, even in poor weather conditions.
- Drones have built-in safe modes that keep them from crashing.
- Drones are aware of objects near them.
- Drones can fly without a pilot in simple, pre-designed paths, provided there are no obstructions.
- Drones can reliably lift significant payloads (up to 45lbs).
- Drones can be aware of the class of airspace they’re flying in.
This is broken down further by Oppenheimer & Co. in their 2016 evaluation of drone technology:
The technology is mature enough for to be used for any aerial imaging, photography or videography purposes. And while we can still improve battery life, manufacturing, and sense-and avoid capabilities, most drone applications are completely unbarred by technology.
The FAA only allowed for commercial drone flight in September of 2014, making the American drone services industry lag behind most of the world. The Australian CAA allowed for this as far back as 2002, and Germany has been regulating commercial flight since 2007.
Despite giving the American drone and drone services industries a late start, the FAA has quickly caught up. Today, U.S. regulations are similar to other countries with drone markets:
And after seeing the potential of significant economic impact, both the U.S. government and the FAA have made steps towards deregulation.
The government has issued a handful of exemptions for companies to start testing beyond what the law currently allows. Alphabet Project, State Farm, Airbus, Uber and others have been granted permission to test beyond visual line of sight and at all times of day and night. These companies have promised to report back to help decide on necessary ways to control the airspace.
The FAA is making changes internally, in order to prepare for mass adoption. They’re working on drastically expanding approval of airspace authorization by building a near real-time processing system. A drone pilot who currently has to wait months to get approval to fly in Class B airspace will now be given instant access.
There are few regulations limiting personal drone use, and the biggest barriers to commercial drone use are on the verge of being lifted.
The last extensive survey that examines the general public’s apprehension concerning drones was taken two years ago. A USPS survey has shown that 52% of consumers were worried about intentional misuse of drones for nefarious purposes. And it comes to no surprise— that’s when we were hearing about the FAA declaring drones to be dangerous to plane engines, and prophesies about ISIS using drones for intelligence gathering.
But two years later, there are 2 million drones flying the U.S. skies, and we have actual data to shed light on the actual use and misuse of drones.
According to the Center for the Study of the Drone, a plane has never crashed as a result of a drone and a drone has not once fallen out of the sky and killed someone. Yearly incidents of drones being used for smuggling or invading privacy can be counted on one hand. And when the FAA released a document containing everyone who has ever been fined for operating a drone illegally, it listed only 24 people.
In reality, drones have primarily been used for good.
U.S. policy and public safety teams are rapidly acquiring drones to help save and protect people. At least 347 state and local police, sheriff, fire, and emergency units in the U.S. have acquired drones. And they made a world of difference during the hurricane recovery efforts with Hurricane Harvey, when they were used to assess damage and determine when it’s safe to start re-building. Abroad, drones have been used to bring medical supplies to remote areas, to track and record wildlife to decrease our footprint on the environment, and to identify disease-carrying insects.
The same USPS survey found that exposure to drones had a direct correlation to people’s acceptance of the technology.
As more drones fill the sky and their positive applications expand, social hurdles will no longer deter drones from market penetration.
The Real Barrier to Entry
The technology is mature, regulations are about to loosen, and society is warming up to the concept of a drone-enabled future. Yet we’re not quite seeing the type of adoption that we expect. If these were the only hurdles, the majority of farmers, construction managers, and real estate agents in America would have a drone in their backpack.
But any economist, investor, or reporter only needs to spend 20 minutes flying a camera-equipped drone to see the hurdle that most headlines are overlooking: usability. While getting a hang of controls requires just a few hours of practice, pulling off a great shot is incredibly difficult. Trying to control the speed, the tilt, the yaw, and then the camera at the end of the gimbal makes aerial photography or cinematography completely inaccessible. In order to make use of a drone, you must spend $500+ and get in over 100 flight hours before learning how to capture even the most basic drone shots.
Above is a basic drone controller, marked up by aerial flight guru, Drone Girl.
Most people won’t pay the hefty price of an expensive drone, those who do, often end up with just another expensive gadget that’s gathering dust in their garage.
Companies are working on niche applications both in recreational drone use (selfie drones) and in commercial drone use (agricultural mapping). But not enough is being done to make the damn thing easier to control.
Once camera flight becomes more accessible to the general population, it will set in motion a flywheel. More consumers will be comfortable with drones and become advocates, pushing the FAA to loosen regulations, which will, in turn, increase business opportunity for manufacturers, improving the technical capabilities of drones:
For drones to be ubiquitous, they need to be accessible to real people, not just niche hobbyists and billion dollar corporations that are sending Teslas to the moon. Only then will we see the market penetration that we’ve all been waiting for.