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Drones on the Upswing


How these high-flying machines are changing the way we think about business, entertainment and social good

Andy Pargh is a drone aficionado. “I was an early adopter,” he says. He’s since become a tech evangelist after launching The Gadget Guru website to highlight hi-tech products. Inspired by the years he worked in the tech industry — first at Texas Instruments and later Panasonic — he says, “I was first attracted by the blending of multiple technologies into a single device.” These days he uses drones to capture b-roll for his video productions.

 Ben Arnold, CTA’s senior director of innovation and trends, says users like Pargh represent the roughly six percent of U.S. households who own one or more drones. There are about 7.3 million units in operation
nationwide, according to CTA’s 20th Ownership & Market Potential Study. “The initial buzz cycle got enthusiasts and hobbyists into the market,” explains Arnold, “but as the category has refined, we are
seeing different segments engage with the drone market.”

As a result, the number of drones is expected to grow significantly over the next decade, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Small hobbyist drones will more than triple in sales to 3.5 million units by 2021 (an increase from 1.1 million drones in 2016). And the number of commercial pilots needed to fly drones could reach as high as 422,000 by 2021.
 

Startups and the Business of Drones

Carmin Wong, owner of Carmin’s Palace Studio in San Francisco, uses drones to help clients create aerial imaging for construction projects, land surveying, real estate properties and government research.

“Outside of the consumer-focused space,” Wong says, “drones are becoming more commonly used in enterprise and industrial settings for things like agriculture or deliveries in areas where traditional modes of transportation are ill-fitted. I see a definite shift into more specialized areas in addition to hobbyists.”

PricewaterhouseCoopers puts a premium value on drone technology as it evolves to meet demand and creates potentially new and robust revenue streams for startups, predicting that drone-powered solutions could reach $127 billion in the next few years.

At Alphabet, the Silicon Valley tech conglomerate that owns Google, drones are being tested in new ways, such as delivery drones that could change the way we think about high-flying robotics.

Last year, Alphabet tested a new 11-pound drone in Australia dubbed “the Wing.” The delivery drone, which uses 12 different rotors, can hover over a programmed location to deliver everything from burritos to medication that consumers order using a smartphone app.

According to Drones in the Service of Society, a report by the Foundation for Responsible Robotics, more advances are coming as delivery drones go from concept to reality. Professor Noel Sharkey, co-author of the report, says ultimately drones can serve society in many positive ways.

“The responsible use of this technology could be enormously helpful to humanitarian work and environmental protection,” he says. “When we have natural disasters, starving people in conflict or emergency need for medicines, drones can come to the rescue.”
 

The Ultimate 'Eye in the Sky'

San Jose, CA-based Aptonomy is developing artificial intelligence (AI) for drones. Using proprietary software, the company is enabling drones to detect danger, respond to alarms and provide tactical responses autonomously.

John Daniels, Aptonomy’s co-founder, says drones can patrol substantially more area per unit of time than traditional methods, including human guards or land vehicles. “In crowded environments,” he explains, “drones can distinguish details in the center of a crowd which were previously impossible by the human eye.” In July, Aptonomy worked with California’s Mountain View Police to develop new crime-fighting techniques using specialized drones. The flyers were deployed over the Shoreline Ampitheater during a two-day music festival to monitor any potential problems at the concert venue from above.

“The drones,” explains Daniels, “monitored the venue’s parking lots and perimeters. They verified that people did not enter restricted areas around the venue.” In addition to offering quicker response times and providing more transparency, the drones can significantly mitigate first responder risk.

The test runs for these new drones has been so successful that the Mountain View Police are considering implementing a more permanent drone program to assist in similar patrols, crisis management and even surveying crime scenes.

“The drones make the police officers more efficient,” Daniels says. “They can spot potential issues before they develop into larger problems. Due to the ‘eye in the sky’ advantage, police have more transparency during emergency responses and can plan better before they arrive."

Drones are also being used to monitor other complex terrains, like oil and gas pipelines, and to fight wildfires and deliver medical supplies in far-reaching corners of the world.

Matternet, a startup in Menlo Park, CA, recently raised $16 million for a drone project designed to transport medical supplies and blood samples between American hospitals. The FAA has given the go-ahead for Matternet and its partners to test unmanned fiight paths in skies throughout the country.
Drone Seed in Seattle is another startup that’s poised to change the way we use drones. The company has developed technology that allows drones to plant seeds, deliver water and spray herbicides to aid in conservation efforts.

And at Airware, a drone analytics company in San Francisco, CEO Yvonne Wassenaar is helping companies leverage the newest drone technology. “Construction companies,” she says, “are using Airware to more accurately report on production, track and compare progress over time, optimize efficiencies for both processes and machinery, and help ensure compliance with safety rules and local regulations.”
Bechtel, the largest construction company in the U.S., is using drones and Airware’s custom analytics to access up-to-date, high-resolution maps of sites. Wassenaar says the technology gives users “the ability to see exact site conditions in near-real time, and powerful analytics to improve operational
efficiency, worker safety and productivity.”

Down the road, she anticipates finding even more ways to integrate data into robotics for different industries. “We’ll go beyond drone data,” she says, “and increasingly look to other sensory data to bring the best of geospatial informed insights to our customers in as real-time a way as possible.”

Natalie Hope McDonald

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