It's easy to think of drones as gimmicky toys that end up getting caught in trees after just a few minutes of being used, or as weapons of war used to remotely launch attacks. What's less talked about is their potential role in the future of business.
As a market, the personal and commercial drones industry is growing rapidly. According to the latest research from Gartner, the industry is expected to grow from $6 billion in 2017 to $11.2 billion in 2020. Meanwhile, more than three million drones were manufactured in 2017, an increase of 39% compared to 2016.
Outside of the consumer and military sectors, drones are being considered for a wide range of applications within business. Companies such as Amazon and Domino's have already been working on plans to use drones to deliver products to customers, believing that unmanned vehicles could streamline the whole logistics process and help save lots of money at the same time.
Commercial drones are still in the early stages and increasing regulations mean companies need to have certain permissions and infrastructure in place to be able to use this technology. Nevertheless, organisations in sectors ranging from retail to insurance and beyond are looking at how drone technology can transform their business.
Amazon is among a string of retailers that are investing in delivery drones. But Chris Longstaff, senior director of business development at Imagination Technologies, is sceptical that this application will completely take off. Instead, he thinks the use of drones in logistics will be more niche. "Drones are really starting to make an impact. You could certainly see them used in remote regions for delivery indeed; we've already seen a pizza delivery service via drone come online in New Zealand," he tells IT Pro.
He believes that governments will likely implement regulations to ensure that such systems don't get out of control and cause problems for other aerial traffic. "In a city, we could see drones being used in a strict flight path for deliveries between two points. I don't think they will be dropping into every house but there is scope for them to be used across a busy city where traffic issues mean you can't get there with conventional transport," he says.
However, Longstaff does think that there's huge potential for drones in the domain of broadcasting and entertainment. "When you're watching a football game and you've got the wires across the stadium for the cameras that's a natural area where a drone would work. We've started to see an interest in 'free viewpoint TV', so if you're watching a football game you'd say, 'I would like to see that from a different angle', so you could extrapolate more information about where the ball is and things like that," he says.
Improving flood defences
Based in West Yorkshire, the Flood Company is one of the organisations investing heavily in drone technology. The company is using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)s to help building managers gain a better overview of their properties and to keep an eye on potential environmental disasters. James Ruddiman, a director at the firm, says drones can help companies save money and boost productivity when it comes to managing their buildings.
"Drones provide a cost-effective way for them to gather aerial views of sites, allowing them to gather up-to-date information on the lay of the land and easily asses if there have been any changes. Years ago, this was done by helicopter or plane, which provides inaccurate information and the lack of ability to monitor changes over time," he says.
Ruddiman explains that drones are transforming the way authorities improve their flood defences, too.
"Drones are also used along riverbanks that have old man-made embankments protecting the river water from overtopping," he tells IT Pro. "The Flood Company programmes drones to follow the river for hundreds of metres to flag up where the low stops of the dyke walls are, indicating the area of the river that will burst its banks first and therefore requires further investigation and potentially works to be carried out."
Surveillance possibilities and challenges
Many drones come with surveillance systems built into them and this could prove incredibly lucrative for businesses. Nick Gibbons, cyber security expert and partner at law firm BLM, says firms can use UAVs collect evidence in a bid to support insurance claims. "Commercial drone use is a fast-evolving environment and I imagine will soon extend beyond deliveries for retail giants. The technology is already being touted as revolutionary for the insurance industry, for example, used to gather surveillance on claimants or to assess the extent of physical damage post-incident," he says.
However, companies can use these systems for much darker purposes too and there are also legal considerations. "In theory, drones could be used for almost any monitoring purpose including industrial espionage. Alongside the obvious privacy issues that would arise from using drones to spy on others, there are practical obstacles that will occur when [operating] what is essentially a small aircraft. The near-misses at Gatwick, though involving personal drone use, demonstrate one of the many potential problems that businesses investing in drone strategy need to be aware of," he says.
Gibbons takes the view that businesses should use drone technology with caution. Although he doesn't deny the benefits, he says drones are equally dangerous. "As well as physical damage vulnerabilities, attacks targeted to drones could leave businesses and their customers equally exposed with regards to personal and commercial data".
He adds that while there are some laws that govern commercial drones, they're still lacklustre and don't cover all the threats: "At present, specific legislation relating to commercial drone use is non-existent, and targeted legal protection and effective insurance products are needed for organisation that opt to use drones. This is especially important with the European Commission predicting full integration of drones in European airspace by 2028."
Ian Hughes, an analyst at 451 Research, believes drones have a huge role to play in enterprise. He says they're particularly useful in areas "where visual inspection of hard to reach areas or dangerous machinery is required". He tells us: "They are IoT sensor hubs that feed analytics and machine learning to help spot damage automatically before it becomes too bad, such as delamination on wind farm rotors, or problems with roof coverings."
It takes a great deal of skill to operate drones in these types of scenarios, and there's also the fact that businesses would most likely need some form of license. But Hughes notes the rise of IT service providers offering rentable drones to firms.
"A key challenge, up to now, has been the need for experienced pilots to fly the drones into position, but increasingly companies are able to take advantage of 'drones-as-a-service'. These service companies provide flight planning and regulatory compliance and automate the flight paths, they also link to enterprise asset management systems," he says.
Hughes adds that if drones are to be a success in the business landscape, then companies must work with lawmakers and regulatory bodies.
"In remote locations, the drone services only have to worry about other drones in the same fleet, but increasingly in urban areas multiple drone services from maintenance to security, insurance assessing and delivery will have to work together. This is a regulatory challenge for individual countries, but the desire to lead the way in this growing area may cause some corners to be cut," he concludes.
Clearly, drones are an exciting innovation. By investing in them, businesses can create new opportunities, such as flight-based delivery services, or carry out maintenance-driven tasks where danger to humans is high. However, UAVs are also risky. Companies not only need to have the right infrastructure in place to support them, but they must also abide by aviation laws and regulations. The challenge now is to bring the rules up to speed, before the technology completely overtakes them.
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Nicholas Fearn is a freelance technology journalist and copywriter from the Welsh valleys. His work has appeared in publications such as the FT, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the Next Web, T3, Android Central, Computer Weekly, and many others. He also happens to be a diehard Mariah Carey fan. You can follow Nicholas on Twitter.