Since artificial satellites were first launched back in the 1950s, everyone almost anywhere in the world has been exposed to prying eyes in the skies. Drone surveillance, then, is really nothing new.
What is new is that today’s increasingly sophisticated drones are capable of so much more than simply spying. An expanding array of applications including mapping, crop inspection, wildlife studies, volcanic activity monitoring, and even life saving deliveries of food, water, and medicines to people stranded by floods, earthquakes, or other natural disasters is making good use of drones in truly meaningful ways.
Whatever our sentiments toward drones may be – whether we consider them acceptable tools or threats to liberty – drones will soon become much more common to our skies, while drone manufacturers and operators will become more common to our portfolios.
Birth of an Industry
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has been tasked with integrating commercial drones into the national aviation system with equal privileges of flight through national commercial airspace by September 30th, 2015.
If you missed your chance to get in on the ground floor of the computer boom in the mid-1980s or the Internet boom of the mid-1990s, here is an opportunity to get in early on the birth of the brand new drone industry before it takes to the skies.
“It's just one of those moments,” Chris Anderson, co-founder and CEO of drone manufacturer 3D Robotics, marvels to CNBC. “It's the economy at scale. Those technologies that used to be incredibly expensive are now very cheap and getting better and faster than any other technology in history.”
After years of use by the military, the research and development phase has already been done, the technology is already cleaned of bugs, and the cost is cheap enough to make drones commercially viable.
So viable, in fact, that analysts estimate the drone market will quickly grow into an $82 billion industry employing over 100,000 people within 10 years of its integration into the FAA.
When listing off the numerous fields into which the drone industry can sub-divided itself, the sky is literally the limit.
There is the obvious assistance drones can provide police in the search for fleeing suspects or in disabling vehicles by deploying tire-spikes without putting the public at risk from high speed pursuits.
But they can also be fitted with other equipment besides cameras, including geographical surveying instruments and crop sprayers. And because they can hover, the electric power industry could make good of them when conducting high-power line inspections and maintenance.
Even more, their ability to ascend and descend vertically enables drones to deliver water, food, and first aid supplies to communities or individuals stranded by natural disasters. Imagine the speed and reach of search and rescue operations using drones in dense forest or on dangerous mountainsides inaccessible to current emergency responders.
“Drones are so important to the aerospace community because they are basically revitalizing the aerospace industry,” Mary Cummings, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, encapsulates to CNBC. “People are starting to dream up ways to use these because it's such a great technology and in terms of interesting, who doesn't love flight? And now you can put it in people's hands.”
And here’s one from me… the film industry. I mean, come on – it’s a flying camera. Can you imagine the film sequences they could put together for some daring rescue, high altitude jump, aerial combat visual or ridiculously spectacular car chase? Why go with that plastic look of CGI special effects when you can film the real thing, and likely for a lower cost?
Without a single doubt, we will soon be hearing much more about drones and the companies that manufacture and operate them.
As one such enterprising new drone manufacturer, 3D Robotics is working on making drones simpler to use. “It's like the Apple to Macintosh pivot,” CEO Anderson compares. “We're taking the complexity out of the machine. Right now, it makes perfect sense to a hobbyist or someone who has flown before, but for someone who hasn't, it's all too complicated.”
Software being the driving mechanism behind drones, an entirely new programming field is opening up in software engineering. Airware, a start-up company born out of the incubator program at Lemnos Labs, is making hardware and software that is programmable by the end-user to enable the customization of drone tasks. The company has already attracted $10.7 million in venture capital from Andreessen Horowitz and Google Ventures this past May.
Another start-up, Matternet, plans to use drones as couriers to deliver goods to remote places with no infrastructure.
Even before drones are up and flying, drone support companies are already springing up, such as DroneDeploy, a start-up out of the incubator Angelpad. With a focus on software that facilitates the management of an entire fleet of drones, the company has already found a partner in need of managing its fleet of drones to deliver medical supplies in West Africa.
The entire spectrum of the drone industry is quickly taking shape, from manufacturer 3D Robotics, to software designer Airware, to drone user Matternet, to drone fleet supporter DroneDeploy. The drone team is already taking to the field, each player in his respective position.
Tough Image to Shake
Though the government and the FAA are quickly clearing the path for the commercial use of drones, there is still one obstacle that needs to be overcome: that disquieting “big brother is watching you” stigma.
The FAA estimates that as many as 7,500 commercial drones could soon be flying over American cities, mushrooming to as many as 30,000 by 2020. These cameras will be in the hands of any commercial operator with a license – just ordinary people. Surely, no one can ever be fully aware of everything these operators will be doing with their machines.
But the FAA is doing more than simply drawing up new rules and guidelines for extending airspace access to drone operators. It is also attempting to dispel the public’s misperceptions toward them.
“We recognize that the increasing use of unmanned aircraft does provide privacy concerns, and those concerns need to be addressed,” an FAA representative acknowledged to CNBC. “But we've been integrating new technology into the airspace for more than 50 years, and we expect to be able to do the same thing with unmanned aircraft.”
Even with the broader rules and regulations outlined by the FAA, local authorities such as state and municipal governments will ultimately have the final word. Populations can vote to limit, restrict, or even ban drone activity over their jurisdictions.
Ultimately, though, the fear of drones will likely be dispelled by the passage of time, as has been the case with countless new potentially intrusive technologies in the past. Eventually, we just get used to them.
Cameras have been around for over a century and are today found in cell phones and even eye glasses. Surveillance cameras monitor shopping malls, banks, schools, and office buildings. Even our major intersections have eyes that automatically issue fines, no less. Anyone can already be watched doing anything in public anywhere at all.
The idea of drones infringing on our liberties is really as foundationless as the fears against photography itself. We just have to remind ourselves that being out in public no longer requires the presence of other people.
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