Q. What are the potential commercial applications of drones?
Amazon made news in 2014 by announcing that it would deliver packages via drone, and in some doing joined what has become a growing tide of commercial drone interest. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a drone trade group, estimates that the commercial drone industry would be worth $13.6 billion within three years of current legislative restrictions on commercial drone use being lifted and $82 billion between 2015 and 2025. They also predict that this growth in industry would create 100,000 jobs.10 An engineer from British Aerospace's Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation and Assessment Team projected a global market of $62 billion per year by 2020 and an overall market worth more than $400 billion based on what they see as a potential windfall coming from maturing technologies and increasing permissiveness at the domestic level.11
The list of commercial applications for drones is extensive and includes almost any activity for which surveillance, monitoring, and data are useful and for which there are, as mentioned before, impediments to humans conducting a task that is "dull, dirty, or dangerous." In response to the increased demand for commercial drones, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been granting exemptions at increasingly fast rates to drones that "do not pose a threat to national airspace users or national security."12
One of the earliest applications of drones for commercial activities has been in the area of oil and gas. Launched by hand into the air, drones use sensors to generate 3D images and "paint" maps of the ground. Drones are useful in this context in part because of the remoteness of the Prudhoe Bay, which is in the Northern Slope of Alaska and home to the largest oil fields in the United States. Similarly, the climate of the region means that many of the roads are unpassable many months, giving a great advantage to aerial drones. As Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx endorsed the move to use drones "these surveys on Alaska's North Slope are another important step toward broader commercial use of unmanned aircraft. The technology is quickly changing, and the opportunities are growing."13
A second early mover in terms of commercial drones has been in the construction industry. As Architect magazine puts it, "interest in drones is on the rise among architecture and construction firms for the equipment's ability to access and scope out hard-to-reach or dangerous sites."14 This industry is particularly interested in aerial imagery that can be used for surveying and logistical planning. Drones also help monitor progress and enable engineers to work in real-time on the implementation of a construction project. As the CEO of a drone start-up Skycatch speculates, "one job site could cost a company a few billion dollars. If you can shave a few days off their costs, it's huge."15 In a round of FAA approvals announced in December 2014, Clayco Corp., a company able to monitor construction sites, was granted an exemption. The FAA is still requiring that they fly under 400 ft., fly within sight of operators, and be under 55 lb. The technology will "help with topographic surveys, environmental site assessment, [and] job site safety."16
A third emerging area for commercial drones is in agriculture. The AUVSI "found that almost all respondents considered agriculture to be far and above the largest market."17 According to Aviation Week, about 80% of future commercial applications of drones would likely involve agriculture.18 One scholar working on agricultural drones suggested that "the application of these data drones is only limited by our imagi- nation."19 For less than $1,000 farmers could have a drone, typically a Quadcopter or equivalent, that allows farmers to fly autonomously using a global positioning system (GPS) and take images that are then incorporated into software. As Chris Anderson, formerly of Wired magazine describes it, the imagery can be used in the service of visualizing patterns of soil variation and pest infestations; observing differences between crops that are healthy and those that are not through the infrared data captured; and creating time-series animations. These tools allow any warning signs to pop up early so that farmers can address emerging problems with their crops, using the drone to assess crops, monitor the health of crops, and ensure resistance to pests, all of which are currently tasks that require a farmer to walk through the fields.
Agriculture's turn to drones meshes with what has become the trend of "increasingly data-driven" or "precision" agriculture aimed at becoming more efficient to help growing populations. This approach is based on observations of variation within and across crops through the use of imagery. The introduction of GPS made it possible to map terrain and then observe spatial variation on the basis of crop yield, hydration, and nutrient levels in ways that optimize decisions about where to plant, how to combat disease, and where to irrigate. While this approach has leveraged satellite technology, the rotation of satellites makes them better suited to observing bigger-picture problems over a longer period of time. One robotics engineer suggested, "it sounds trivial but those numbers really add up a lot. If we could save farms 1% on inputs like herbicide and pesticide and increase their yields by 1%, you are looking at multibillion dollar savings."20
Internet giants have also been keen to get in on the action. Facebook and Google have both pursued drones to help provide more widespread Internet access. Facebook has shown interest in buying solar-powered drones, which can stay airborne for up to five years and could act as wireless access points to provide Internet in remote areas. In pursuing this interest, Facebook bought Ascenta, a UK-based company that makes solar-powered drones. Google also acquired a solar- powered drone company that Facebook had been trying to acquire, namely, Titan Aerospace, and then more recently created a new parent company, called Alphabet, which would recognize that the company is much more than a search engine, but rather a holding company for everything, including its drone delivery business. Google has conducted experiments in Australia that would use fixed-wing aircraft to deliver anything from chocolate to cattle vaccines. Following in Google's footsteps, Amazon announced that it would offer PrimeAir in the near future, which would deliver packages via drone. The company has requested permission from the FAA to test drones capable of flying for 30 minutes to deliver packages up 7 lb., a weight which covers 86% of Amazon's products. The letter to the FAA argues that "granting this request will do nothing more than allow Amazon to do what thousands of hobbyists and manufacturers of model aircraft do every day, and we will abide by much stronger safety measures than currently required for these groups by FAA policies and regulations."21
The use of drones for deliveries is attractive because it means accessing areas that are currently too expensive to reach, too dangerous, or inaccessible via conventional delivery services. It is for this reason that DHL, the German logistics company, launched a service to use an autonomous Quadcopter to deliver supplies to Germany's North Sea island of Juist, which is also car-free. According to Deutsche Post, which owns DHL, it had authorization from the German transport ministry to fly only its parcelcopter only to Juist and not to fly over houses. DHL reports that it avoids air collisions by flying under about 167 ft. (50 m) while checking in with a ground station. It also uses a container that is weatherproof to protect packages from potential damage.22 UPS and FedEx appear to be following suit in trying to develop drones for delivery services. All of these will require permission from the FAA, and will most likely need permission to use drones outside the line of sight of the operator.
The pioneer for this model of delivery drones was a Silicon Valley startup called Matternet. They assert that "drone delivery should be first used in the developing world to deliver food, medicine, and other necessities to areas that are less accessible by car or truck."23 The company has argued that commercial technology usually diffuses from developed to developing countries, even though those who need the technology most are arguably people in developing countries who otherwise cannot access medicine or food because they live in remote areas with poor infrastructure. The idea behind Matternet is to build a network of drones that can cover a swath of land by transporting goods between ground stations, which will recharge batteries and load swap in ways that sidestep roads altogether. The group has tested the network of octocopters in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Lesotho, where it transported material from clinics to hospital labs, with visions for trying a broader- scale implementation in the coming years. As the IEEE Spectrum suggested, "Amazon's talk of package delivery drones may just be pie-in-the-sky, but start-up Matternet has already begun testing a delivery-drone network in developing countries."24
Drones also seem to have promise for the film and journalism industries because many potential scenes or stories would fit under the "dangerous" heading of "dull, dirty, or dangerous" when it comes to human involvement. For Hollywood, several companies have used drones on closed sets not only as a cost-effective alternative for aerial shots normally performed by helicopters or planes but as one that can capture something like an explosive action scene that might put a cameraman in danger.25 The cable news network CNN also reported that it had brokered a deal with the FAA to incorporate drones into its reporting. "Our aim is to get beyond hobby-grade equipment and establish what options are available and workable to produce high-quality video journalism using various types of UAVs (drones) and camera setups," according to one senior vice president, who followed by saying that the drones would naturally have to operate safely. CNN and the FAA have also partnered with Georgia Tech to study how drones might best be used in the service of journalism.26 For now, the collaborators are simply testing for ways that would "advance efforts to integrate Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) into newsgathering and reporting."27
The sports network ESPN has also begun using drones to cover sporting events such as the Winter X Games, with the provision that ESPN would keep drones within a "closed-set environment." This has been defined as not over spectators or near the airport but rather to track snowboardcross or snow- mobiling activities. ESPN uses drones for closer coverage of the events. ESPN's manager for the approval process stated that "any piece of technology we feel brings viewers closer to the event, we're interested in."28 Russia also approved the use of drones to capture snowboard and skiing events at the Sochi Olympics, which allowed for some viewing angles that would be impossible with either a distant helicopter or an individual photographer from a more distant vantage point.