Should Your Company Consider Using Drones?


The technology is hardly bleeding edge. Unmanned aircraft were used for warfare all the way back during the Vietnam War. Yet suddenly, everyone seems to be talking about, thinking about, planning for use of, or worrying about privacy invasions from the aviation industry calls unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs—or drones, to everyone else. 

Why now? Drones are an important part of the Internet of Things, and thus the Internet of Everything. They can be summoned to carry objects from one location to another, providing the instant fulfillment online shoppers want, as well as near-instant access to medical or mechanical supplies in situations where getting those items quickly can save lives. Equipped with wi-fi, they can provide broadband connectivity on demand to places where it would otherwise be unavailable. Equipped with video cameras, they can show us what’s going on in locations where we might otherwise have to guess. Equipped with RFID antennas or sensors, they can help us track objects or people, or alert us to changing environmental conditions. 

Someday they could form an “Internet of Airborne Things,” as some envision it. And recently drones have become affordable. 3D Robotics, the company co-founded by Chris Anderson, former editor ofWired, says it ships about 50 drones a day, most costing less than $1,000. 

The biggest obstacle to drone adoption so far is neither technological nor economic, but legislative. The FAA has long banned drones, other than for personal use, from U.S. airspace, ban that’s complicated by the fact that commercial drones personal drones are often the exact same devices--which means the FAA must figure out why a drone is in the air to know if it’s legal or not. 

The FAA recently grounded many drones, some before they were even invented, by declaring that drones gathering news information are commercial and thus illegal for now, and so are the delivery drones Amazon plans to develop. 

That’s likely to change, however. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act, passed in 2012, gave the FAA until September 2015 to create a framework for licensing commercial drones. With that deadline on the horizon, this summer the FAA issued its first commercial drone license to BP. 

Now that BP has broken the ice others are sure to follow, and some estimate there will be 30,000 civilian drones criss-crossing our airspace by decade’s end. It’s more than time for smart technology leaders to start thinking about how drones might or might not fit in with your plans. Consider: 

Could your organization benefit from using drones? 

Why would it want to? Right now, the answer is most likely yes if it needs to oversee conditions in remote locations that are tough to monitor. That’s the purpose of BP’s drone license: The oil company will use drones with sensors and cameras to monitor its pipelines, roads, and equipment at Prudhoe Bay. 

And drones can provide powerful security support as well. In many countries where commercial drones are legal, governments and wildlife groups are using them to watch over endangered speciesand reduce poaching. It’s easy to see how many organizations could monitor their facilities for intrusion or theft more effectively with airborne drones than with human or canine security guards. Likewise, drones have been used to facilitate more than 1,400 search and rescue missions, and helped find more than 300 living people, although the FAA frowns on this use as well. 

Drones are also a great way to get a look at a location or facility—and let customers and other constituents get a view of it as well. This is why drones are appealing to news organizations (which currently use larger and more expensive helicopters for this task) and filmmakers, who sometimes use unlicensed drones to get those great aerial shots

And just because the FAA says delivery drones are illegal for now, don’t count them out forever. The FAA document seems designed not to ban delivery drones exactly, but to “clarify” what common sense already dictates: That such use does not qualify as “Hobby or Recreation.” Amazon, like BP, will need a license to fly its drones, but there was never any reason to think otherwise. 

Another more surprising use for drones is to enable the Internet itself. DARPA is already providingsuch hotspots to the military, and Facebook and Google have each announced plans to do the same for people not currently reached by broadband. For companies that need to provide wireless Internet access in locations that don’t have it, drones might be a very viable option, since even some very inexpensive models can provide a wireless signal. 

If drones can provide some real benefits, the new technology may also come with some challenges. Among them:

How will they integrate with your network? 

To truly take advantage of drone technology and make it part of your IoT deployment, the devices will need to integrate with existing networks and systems. That leads to the question of what operating system the drones might use, very much up for grabs at the moment. 

Then there’s the data. Drones, like other Internet of Things devices, are likely to deliver an enormous amount of data, perhaps including video that they have collected. They can provide detailed records of people and vehicle movements in remote locations where you would otherwise have limited visibility. They can survey large inventories at a manufacturing location, providing information on what supplies are running low. In Africa, drones are combined with RFID antennas to identify protected animalsfrom the air. Drones combined with RFID tagging could also be a powerful combination in many other settings, from locating vehicles on work sites to tracking precious assets to finding, monitoring, and providing for support employees in outdoor settings. Have a careful plan for what data to collect, and how that data will be processed and stored, before launching that first drone.

 Can drones pose security risks? 

The thought of a hacker taking over a drone is scary, and it’s not far-fetched. Last year, a white-hat hacker created a drone that can find and hijack other drones. This year, DARPA unveiled what it claims is a hack-proof drone. Is it truly impervious? Stay tuned.

 Who will operate, program, and maintain the drones? 

The commercial drone industry will create tens of thousands of jobs and some colleges aren’t waiting for the FAA to get its act together; they’re already offering drone operation courses

That’s smart: If the industry abruptly takes off—which looks likely once the FAA gives more commercial drones permission to fly—there will be a lot of demand for technicians with the right skills. After web developers and data analysts, will drone operators be the next impossible-to-hire specialists? 

It looks like they probably will. So if you’re considering commercial drones, keep in mind you may want to plan for training drone operators too.

For more blogs by Minda Zetlin, visit www.innovatethink.com

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