Are there any industries that drones won't disrupt?

Drones were established last Christmas among the season’s most coveted gifts, scrawled onto the wishlists of thousands eager to take flight with these seemingly must-have devices...

Far and wide, ruddy-cheeked kids with a penchant for mischief and adults harbouring ambitions of aviation unwrapped these arachnid like objects and took them to the sky.

Yet to cast aside drones merely as toys, the latest fad for the tech obsessives, would be to miss their most valuable function and to overlook their growing necessity in a number of industries. Drones do not offer a glimpse of the future but rather they are firmly rooted in the now, serving construction, agriculture, archaeology, entertainment and, well, plenty more too.

So rapid has this growth of drone use been that China-based DJI, the largest consumer drone manufacturer in the world, are reported to have, as recently as April, been seeking a valuation of $10 billion.

It is just nine years since the inception of the idea for Frank Wang, DJI’s founder.

He now has a business with a global workforce of 3,000 and, according to Forbes, annual sales of $500 million.

 "[Frank Wang] had always been passionate about flying and for his thesis project he developed a system to make remote-controlled helicopters more stable, and easier to fly," Michael Perry of DJI tells us.

"Fundamentally he felt that there was a huge innovative potential if the complex mechanics of flight could be simplified for anyone to use."

While drones are becoming more frequently used in performing arts to provide a richer experience for the audience - Cirque du Soleil and John Cale both having used DJI models during live shows - they are far more valuable when serving a less indulgent purpose.

Read: How drones can be used for good

Airware, for example, - described by TechCruch as "perhaps Silicon Valley’s premier drone start-up" - help companies build custom drones using their innovative technology to assist in various industry tasks.

"I saw an opportunity to create a platform for commercial drones that can be customized or adapted for multiple uses, that also offers ongoing customer support," says Jonathan Downey, CEO of Airware and an Electrical Engineering and Computer Science graduate from MIT.

"To address this problem we created Airware and the Aerial Information Platform, an operating system that combines hardware, software, and cloud services to enable companies to safely operate drones at scale, meet regulatory and insurance compliance requirements, and rapidly develop industry-specific drone solutions."

Airware also recently announced a strategic partnership with General Electric that will allow the multi-billion dollar conglomerate "to collect better data, make more informed decisions and keep workers out of harm’s way" and it will likely be the first in a wave of similar agreements, both in the US and UK, that will mount pressure on authorities to re-write the rule book.

All of these drone companies are bound to the same regulations as outlined by the Federal Aviation Administration (in the USA) and progress will be dependent upon their willingness to be adaptable as these devices become more prevalent.

The FAA is wary of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and, as they explain, introducing them into the nation's airspace will be an enormous challenge "because the U.S. has the busiest, most complex airspace in the world".

The slow pace of regulation is the biggest threat

There are work-arounds, however, with Skycatch - another  Silicon Valley start-up - having launched the WORKMODE initiative - dubbed the "Uber of the drone business" - which trains drone pilots, giving them online qualifications and connecting them with customers.

However, fully autonomous devices remain the ambition for most and the FAA will need to be flexible - as they are expected to be in due course - but the speed at which change is exacted will never be fast enough.

"The slow pace of regulation is the biggest threat," Michael admits. "Without a comprehensive legal framework in place, the possibility for innovation using aerial technology will diminish and the risk of unsafe or irresponsible use may go up as less people know or understand the rules."

It is a pertinent issue that all drone manufacturers will be eager to address, even it will offer something of a level playing field in the industry. There has been encouragement in recent months from the FAA, while influential figures such as US Senator Cory Booker have pushed for legislation that would offer more support for the advancement of drone technology.

"We’ve taken a proactive approach, working closely with the FAA as they develop the final rules and standards," Jonathan explains.

"Companies can legally conduct operations in the US today via section 333 exemptions and we expect to see operations open up more broadly in the near future as the FAA has accelerated the approval of section 333 exemptions and is giving nationwide blanket Certificate of Authorizations."

Michael adds: "We are encouraged by these initial steps and are working together with [the FAA] to ensure that the final regulatory framework keeps the skies safe and open for innovation."

Further expansion is, then, in the hands of the regulators. And should, over time, a compromise be reached then, well, the sky really is the limit for drone technology as more industries, and more of us, feel the benefit.

"As a whole, we have just scratched the surface of using drone technology..." Jonathan concludes. "Overall, I’m excited to see how many industries we can help with our technology."

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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