It seems right to be talking about drone technology in the year 2015: the year Back to the Future II is set.
Although 2015 doesn’t look ready to deliver the hover-boards and flying cars the film promised this year would bring, flying robotic servants could make a satisfactory replacement.
That’s really pretty much what drones are: remotely controlled robots that fly autonomously to carry out our commands using software-controlled flight plans and GPS. These pilotless aircraft offer a number of uses, from military applications such as surveillance and bombing, firefighting and other search and rescue, traffic and weather monitoring, to filming large, remote estates for millionaire house hunters.
Military applications often escalate the development of new technologies; big government budgets and lots at stake usually means there’s plenty of cash to invest in developing the technology and there’s political impetus, or at least the absence of regulation, to drive change. That’s exactly why drone technology is coming on in leaps and bounds and why drones are going to be a big part of military operations from now on.
But drone technology could have applications for the regular household. Big companies such as Amazon are already investigating using the technology for domestic deliveries; the e-commerce giant recently advertised for a full-time ‘drone flight engineer’ based in Cambridge UK.
Whilst the world’s militaries race to create their own robot sky armies, a small pinch of global investment in drone tech is going towards civilian applications that could bring the technology into the domestic sphere, especially for ecommerce. Over the next decade it’s thought around 12% of a cumulative global spend of around $100bn on drone tech will be for civilian uses.
Drones are disruptive
The disruptive effects of drone technology on ecommerce are likely to be widespread. In the first instance, it’s likely to give larger organisations with greater investment clout an advantage over smaller operators who can’t keep up with the costs of this new technology. Entry costs for ecommerce will rise. But long-term it will unlock new possibilities for ecommerce for delivering things within a shorter timespan.
Whilst ecommerce operators won’t be dependent on third party carriers to deliver their products, there will be a short-term skills shortage as the popularity of drones exceeds the numbers of people trained to operate and programme them. This will lead to a big skills restructuring within the ecommerce fulfilment industry.
London: leading the way for drone technology?
The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has welcomed the idea of drone technology to alleviate traffic congestion in the city. Increasing internet shopping, he said, was going to lead to a 45% increase in delivery traffic in the crowded capital over the next seven years.
London is thought to be a good location for the technology to find its first footing, but the legality of using unmanned flying machines in a civilian context is still undetermined and some countries are more welcoming than others. It’s thought countries like Japan and Australia could steal a march on the US when it comes to drone use if the latter doesn’t relax current restrictions on how the technology can be employed.
Some parts of the world insist a drone is only used within sight of their operator – which negates the whole point of flightless machines – or several miles from any airport – which excludes most major cities. The US aviation authority (FAA) further insists that drones can only be piloted by ‘real’ trained pilots, although drone proponents insist the skills required to fly a manned plane and pilot a drone are very different.
Opponents of the technology point to very real security, privacy and safety risks associated with drone use. It is however hard to think of any technology with as many applications as drone technology that, once invented, could ever be put back in its box.
The FAA has already received several hundred applications from firms wanting to use the technology so there is considerable pressure to find a working legal framework for commercial use.
Amazon is one of the firms applying to a legal waiver to use drones in commercial circumstances: the company has begun testing drones outside the US in places where the regulatory environment is more accommodating of the technology. And in China, Alibaba’s major online marketplace Taobao has partnered with Shanghai YTO Express to test drone deliveries in February 2015.
What about the law?
Legislators have often been tempted to hastily apply ill-thought out legislation to new technologies – witness the attempts of various countries to regulate what goes on online. It could be the case that drone technology is hampered by the same clumsy regulation. What’s clear is that countries that are either more open minded about (or slower to regulate) drone technology could take first mover advantage in this area.
It will take considerable political impetus to overcome very real concerns about privacy and security before drone technology can become more widespread. Anticipating these concerns, the Pentagon is exploring technologies that could screen out commercial drones misappropriated for harmful use such as biological and chemical weapons.
This includes drones that can sniff out other drones carrying chemical weaponry: which seems an appropriately space age solution to a space age problem. Whilst one commentator, Todd Humphreys of the University of Texas, believes 30,000 drones could be flying around the States by 2020, it’s conceivable that there may need to be legal and security safeguards in place before commercial drone use can really become a reality.
There are also very serious concerns about battery life. With many drones offering only 20-30 minutes of powered flight time, you may be able to get a drone to deliver your parcel but you’ll have to send it home in a taxi afterwards. That’s a significant technical hurdle to overcome before drones can have real practical applications that are commercially viable.