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Eyes in the Sky

Drones are about to soar in the hobbyist and commercial sectors due to recent FAA rule changes that will ease restrictions for people and companies looking to fly drones.

The number of drones sold grew 224 percent from April 2015 to April 2016, according to The NPD Group’s Retail Tracking Service. The 2015 holiday season was a big driver with drone unit sales increasing 445 percent from the 2014 holiday season. By 2017 unit volumes in the hobbyist market is expected to be much larger than either the military or the civil market, with popular hobbyist drones selling 100,000 or more units.

Cutting-edge smartphone technology is a key catalyst in driving the drone industry from companies like Qualcomm with its Snapdragon platform. The cost of MEMS, accelerometers and gyroscopes has dropped 10- to 100-fold, while cheap and powerful microcontrollers are enabling low-cost and powerful navigational control systems encouraging a surge in drones from companies like DJI, 3D Robotics, Airdog and Autel.

With next-generation sensors, IoT and high-bandwidth communications, drones are now data gathering platforms used by construction, agriculture, oil and gas, security, transport and filmmaking industries. Emerging advances in exponential technologies, batteries and material sciences will continue to make drones smarter, cheaper, more reliable, safer to operate and ultimately ubiquitous.

A Mega Tech Trend

Many of the emerging drone breakthroughs are the result of converging expertise across sectors. As a result of the fusion of AI, robotics, VR, material sciences and computational capabilities doubling, morphing and combining drone capabilities are steering towards the next tipping point.

Computer vision, ‘sense-and-avoid’ and optical tracking will soon become standard in consumer drones. Currently, drones are either manually or GPS piloted, but as they integrate into our fabric they'll need true autonomy. Recently, for instance, Intel acquired itseez, a computer vision and machine learning specialist.

Breakthroughs in machine vision and deep machine learning are emerging as powerful technologies for extracting insights from data, including internet searches, audio signals and images.

NVIDIA offers a module that enables faster time to market for drone vision, smart surveillance and robotics designs. Drones equipped with cameras and sensors provide companies with more precise data to improve their operational efficiencies and profitability. Many corporations and their venture arms, such as Intel, Qualcomm and Google Ventures are now active investors in drone startups or adjacent converging technologies.

Drones are expected to surpass satellites for gathering higher-resolution useful data. While satellites will continue to cover larger areas, drones with sensors will accelerate worldwide digitization and create infinite data opportunities.

Subsequently, the emerging role of data analytics will create new value through innovation. While Google has made strides in digitizing the physical world, capturing street views – the next stage will enable software companies like Salesforce, SAP and Autodesk to integrate drone data into their core commercial offerings, to provide greater value, transformative decision-making and revenue generation.

At CES, companies like Yuneec and Parrot showcased products suitable for hobbyists as well as commercial purposes. Intel-funded Yuneec’s Typhoon H drone was chosen the “Best of CES 2016.”

And Ford launched a developer challenge along with the United Nations Development Program and drone maker DJI. The goal is to assist emergency aid workers by launching drones from the bed of an F-150 pickup to inspect disaster areas inaccessible to vehicles.

Today, drones are used for commercial newsgathering and filmmaking from companies like Airborne Innovations, Autel, Freefly, Eclipse Rover, Roxy Drones, and distributors such as Stampede and Multicopter. And spherical 360-degree cameras mounted on drones are generating more immersive entertainment experiences.

Drones, a Serious Business

What’s more, real-time monitoring and data collection is letting companies create new business models. They are particularly useful in sectors that require both mobility and high-quality data, as well as for businesses that manage assets dispersed over large areas.

The May 2016 PwC report Clarity From Above, found drones could replace $127 billion of human labor and services. Infrastructure ranks at the top at a total addressable market valued of roughly $45.2 billion, followed by agriculture at $32.4 billion and transportation at $13 billion. Other sectors under $10 billion were security, media and entertainment, insurance, telecommunications and mining.

The Public Good

While consumer fascination is focused on amateur photography, drone-delivered pizza or potential package delivery services from Amazon and Google – drones are beginning to deliver an adroit solution to some formidable challenges involved in reaching marginalized communities.

The UAE-based mobile operator Etisalat recently debuted a vaccine transport and monitoring service called "Drones for Good" – that uses drones to deliver immunizations to the world’s poorest in remote regions. U.S.- based Matternet is also working on special purpose drones with UNICEF and the Government of Malawi as a cost-effective way to reduce waiting times for HIV testing of infants.

Similarly, it is working on an initiative in the Dominican Republic to create a small network of drones to transport medicines between rural clinics and hospital labs to deliver better healthcare. And in Rwanda, UPS is partnering with U.S. drone manufacturing company Zipline and Gavi, an international organization dedicated to expanding access to vaccines, to create a drone network aimed at delivering timecritical emergency medical supplies, such as blood and rabies vaccines, from Kigali the capital, to Rwanda’s remotest regions.

Drone technologies have the potential to propel worldwide disruption not only for business benefits but also for the greater good of society – and we are just at the beginning of this journey.

Susan Schreiner