America may still be the tech centre of the world — and it is — but regulatory dithering over whether and how to allow drones — or unmanned aerial vehicles as most call them — in its airspace is throwing up opportunities for other countries to get a head-start.
And that’s no small thing, for a couple of reasons. One is that drones as an industry is moving amazingly quickly. Some liken it to the PC: the technology is getting better, smaller, cheaper, and prices are falling so rapidly that everyone can have one, and the gap between what constitutes a serious drone and a toy has narrowed considerably.
There’s another element in this, and it’s also comparable to the PC era. Back then we knew we all wanted a PC but we weren’t quite sure what we wanted it for. We bought one anyway, and felt slightly guilty that it sat in the corner gathering dust. Naysayers questioned the future of an industry that seemed to revolve around convincing people to buy something even when they couldn’t give them a reason to do so.
Sound familiar? A lot of folk, including my self, have bought a drone in the past year. Mine was a tiny one and upon its maiden flight floated high into the air and disappeared into next door’s garden. Its second landed in a gutter that could only be reached by small children and my wife drew the line at sending our daughter up there. So I’m now drone-less.
This is the bigger issue with drones — not whether to propel reluctant tikes up ladders, but to figure out what they’re good for. And this is where companies in Europe and Asia are stealing a march on their U.S. cousins. The hardware is all well and good but the future of drones, like that of computers, is going to be about harnessing their unique capabilities to solving problems, developing use cases, building ecosystems (sorry, I’m obliged by contract to use that word at least once a week) .
So, for example, a company here in Singapore is working with companies and government agencies around the region on a range of interesting things — what they and others are calling drones as a service. So if you’re flying over a palm oil plantation in Malaysia doing something quite basic like mapping where, exactly, the edges of the property are, why not calibrate your cameras so they can also measure moisture level — and likely yield — of individual trees?
And rather than have building engineers hang dangerously out of skyscrapers to check structural damage, why not have a drone do it? Not only do you save on safety, you also have a virtual model of your building you can refer back to. Tired of despatching dog catchers in response to citizens’ complaints? Deploy a drone above the target areas and build a heat map of their movements so you know when best to pounce, and how many leads you’re going to need.
There’s lots of other opportunities being explored out there beyond the obvious ones. The trick is going to build business models around theses services so when companies see drones they don’t think ‘toy I play with at the weekend’ but ‘this could really help me do something I’ve long thought impossible’.
No question, of course, that the U.S. will be the centre of drone innovation. It already is, if you think in terms of developing the technologies and absorbing venture capital. But it may yet be companies beyond American shores which make the most of their head-start that emerge into major players as drones become as commonplace in business, if not homes, as computers are.
Drones is a bad word to describe the future. We hear drones and we think bombs dropped unseen, we think surveillance and we think somebody talking incessantly about something not very interesting.
But I’m a big fan of drones. Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles and while inevitably the military is ahead in leveraging the technology, and governments are restricting their usage, they represent as powerful an opportunity for the future as the mobile phone.
You average drone is a quadrocopter — a helicopter with four rotors. The design is more than a century old, but it has only been in the past decade that they’ve gotten cheap enough for any tom or dick or harry to have one. Now they can be as small as a butterfly, controlled by your iPhone.
Outside of the military, they’re still somewhat in the domain of hobbyists, but this is beginning to change. Journalists have been using them to cover protests, floods and sports. Oil and gas companies are using them to survey terrain and check out potential leaks. Conservation groups are using them to map terrain and track wildlife and poachers.
This is just the start. Drones could be deployed as sort of flying webcams so drivers can check traffic conditions ahead. Refugee agencies could do rapid surveys of movements of people to assess their needs before they turn up at a camp.
And that’s just by attaching a camera to a drone. You could attach a lot more.
Amazon has half-jokingly released a video showing how a drone could deliver a package. Attaching near-infrared sensors could detect the health of vines and crops. Surveyors could use distance sensors to quickly assess the size of a plot — or even the rooms inside a building.
This is beginning to happen, and in some industries it’s been happening for a while. Regulations are a little slow to keep pace — I spoke to one entrepreneur who moved his startup from California to Singapore because he said it was taking too long for the regulations to catch up with the reality. In Southeast Asia, he says, governments are more receptive to his drone as a service business.
The next step after commercial adoption, I think, is going to be when we as individuals see drones in the same way we see phones. The smartphone was originally just a phone — now it’s pretty much everything but a phone. Think computer, internet device, social tool, health monitor, stopwatch, radio, music player, tv, satnav, TV remote, calorie counter.
We’ll deploy a drone to water the garden, to check whether the bus is on its way, to deliver a pina colada to our spouse lounging by the pool. We’ll send one out to scare away the birds raiding our strawberry patch, to check out storm damage on a chimney, to figure out where there’s a parking spot in a crowded lot. We’ll have them accompany us on walks and runs as a kind of mobile security guard, providing direction, assessing threats and, in the event of rain, an umbrella.
For sure, there are privacy concerns. But we’ve been surprisingly sanguine about the sudden appearance of billions more cameras in our face — either on phones or streetlamps — so it may not take us long to figure out that the skies above us are not empty. We’ll develop ways to block intrusive sensors and cameras. And hopefully we’ll make the most of being able, for the first time in our lives, to be able to look down on ourselves from above.
This is a longer version of a piece I’m recording for the BBC World Service. I no longer upload the podcasts here because of time constraints, but they can usually be found from time to time at the tail-end of the Business Daily podcast available here. While I’m a staff correspondent at Reuters, this is not written for Reuters.