Drones—the unmanned aerial vehicles sensationalized for their potential applications in military, logistics, architecture, and other areas—are becoming more popular and more affordable than ever before. Yet, we’re still years away from seeing a fleet of drones delivering packages in our neighborhoods, and most businesses aren’t utilizing drones in any significant way (despite 44 percent expecting to use them in the future).
What changes will we need to see before we encounter a full-blown drone revolution?
The State of Drones in the Modern World
Let’s not diminish the state of drones in the modern world. Drone technology has made astonishing progress in the past decade or so:
Applications. We’re already using drones regularly in several fields. For example, drones are frequently used to capture establishing shots for architectural 3D rendering, and they’re also being used by the military to engage in photography and monitoring, as well as occasional attacks.
Laws. Despite drones being a kind of “wild west” frontier several years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has developed firm policies for how to register unmanned aerial vehicles, and how to fly them responsibly.
Availability. Drones are also becoming more affordable and more available, though they still have a long way to go. There are currently 2.5 million drones in the United States alone, with that number expected to nearly triple by 2020.
Where We Need to Improve
However, there are still some areas that require significant improvement:
Regulation. Despite some initial progress in defining regulations for drones, there are many specifics left to be decided. For example, it may take the FAA years to decide how to regulate drone-based package delivery. The laws dictating drone operations will be necessarily complex, to account for all the ways drones are currently used and how they could be used in the future. Coming up with laws that enable innovation, but restrict infringements on privacy and misuses of airspace, will be incredibly difficult.
Automation. One of the greatest appeals of drones is their ability to fly without a pilot—kind of. For the most part, someone still needs to be controlling the vehicle remotely (though there are some exceptions). Automating drone flight patterns introduces a number of additional challenges, including finding a way to navigate obstacles and ensuring that two drones don’t interfere with each other. The problem gets even more complicated when considering sensitive applications, like military use.
Cost-efficiency. For now, drones aren’t especially cost-efficient. You can get a usable consumer model for a few hundred dollars, but the drones required for companies to invest in life-changing technologies and systems would cost several thousand dollars each—and they might need an entire fleet of them. Because applications like drone delivery and service are intended to save money, it could be years before drone models are able to be produced for a cost low enough to justify their use.
Reliability. Reliability is another major hurdle drones are facing. Imagine a future where packages are delivered almost exclusively with drones; would you want to order from a carrier that has a 90 percent delivery success rate? Probably not. Drones need to achieve a much higher level of reliability, closer to 100 percent, before they’re used for consumer deliveries or similar applications. Any number of things could go wrong here, including launch failures, navigation errors, or even disturbances or theft of the package from people witnessing the drone dropping something off.
Public acceptance. Finally, drones need to win over more public acceptance. If consumers are wary of drones being used to survey their property, or deliver their packages, or carry out military missions, companies and organizations will be far less willing to use them. Drones have conjured significant public excitement, but consumers don’t yet hold complete confidence in the future of this technology. Only time will be able to convince them.
Until drones can make major moves in these areas, they won’t be capable of the cutting-edge applications or widespread adoption we’ve been promised. Still, engineers seem to be making progress in each of these categories, so it may only be a matter of time before we move past these challenges.