BOULEVARD, Calif.—The drones are coming. But are we ready for them?
Not as flying deliverymen that bring diapers, books or soup cans to your home, a vision put forth by Amazon.com, Inc. CEO Jeff Bezos to much fanfare a little more than a year ago.
Instead, drones will help spray crops, inspect high-voltage power lines and hover over movie sets to provide directors with new vantage points. They will also work for insurance companies, real estate agencies, ski resorts and dozens of other businesses.
For now, this all remains theoretical. Except for a few locations, United States airspace is closed to commercial drones. Regulators say the danger is too great, and they want to slowly ease unmanned aircraft into the already crowded skies.
Advocates of the young drone industry complain that the long wait is keeping them grounded. Big-money investors are generally staying away, waiting for clear government guidelines. And the blanket flight prohibition has prevented companies from experimenting and advancing the technology. That includes developing sophisticated collision-avoidance systems or finding ways for the aircraft to navigate without human help.
“Most of these drones have very limited safety features,” says Maryanna Saenko, an analyst with science and technology consultancy Lux Research. If one crashes, “it’s a four- or five-pound brick coming out of the sky.”
Most Americans associate drones with the military, which uses unmanned aircraft to survey battlefields and hunt terrorists. In a similar manner, businesses of all kinds envision using them to perform jobs that are too difficult or dangerous for humans.
If safety and regulatory obstacles can be overcome, within the next three years, drones and the companies that support them could generate US$13.7 billion worth of economic activity in the U.S. and create 70,000 new jobs, according to the industry’s trade group, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
That’s just domestically. In less than a decade, as many as 32,000 commercial drones could be flying worldwide, according to aerospace consultancy Teal Group. Only a third will be in the U.S.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) plans to release guidelines soon about who can fly drones weighing less than 55 lbs. and under what conditions. They might include the extremely stringent—and costly—requirement that operators have a pilot’s license.
That means some of the most ambitious drone ideas, like Amazon’s package-delivery system, will probably be grounded for now. First, drones will tackle the hard-to-do jobs and the dangerous industrial tasks, often in remote places.
Here is a list of some of the most likely first applications for commercial drones:
To see the potential of drones, go to a plateau in the Southern California desert covered with cacti and brush. There, Teena Deering—a former Navy helicopter pilot who later taught drone warfare—is testing the idea of using unmanned aircraft to inspect power lines.
With a few quick movements of a wireless controller—the type used for model airplanes—Deering sends a one-pound drone racing into the sky around a 165-ft. tower. Live video streams back from the drone’s camera, showing her the condition of the lines.
Normally, the remote lines are inspected by helicopter, a difficult job that costs US$1,200 an hour. But San Diego Gas and Electric thinks that drones might be a cheaper, faster way.
Perhaps the industry most ripe for drone use is farming. With the help of GPS mapping, drones can survey an entire farm, find bugs or soil that is too dry or too low in nutrients and then send the exact co-ordinates back to a tractor that will apply pesticide, water or fertilizer only to areas in need.
Taking it a step further, there are 2,500 unmanned miniature helicopters currently used by farmers in Japan to spray pesticides in hilly areas where tractors might roll over. Similar drones are operating in South Korea and Australia. In the U.S., the US$150,000 helicopters are being considered for the steep slopes of California vineyards.
Farmers aren’t expected to buy the costly drones themselves but will outsource the service for specific jobs.
Amazon says its drone delivery service could someday get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less.
Through its Prime Air service, Amazon aims to have drones flying 80 km/h and capable of carrying as much as five lbs.
“They will become as normal as seeing delivery trucks driving down the street,” says Paul Misner, Amazon’s global vice-president of public policy.
Not everybody is so optimistic. Drones, they say, aren’t a cost-effective replacement for existing systems.
German delivery company Deutsche Post AG, better known as DHL, is already testing a drone, but only to a remote tourist island in the North Sea and just for urgent deliveries of medicine.