A world in which drones swoop out of the sky to deliver goods to your doorstep within minutes of you ordering them sounds exciting. But here's the bad news: For CIOs at companies that are planning to implement them, drones could be the source of some serious headaches.
To understand why, it's important to be clear how business are likely to use drone technology in the near future.
Drones have already been used to deliver pizzas in Russia and India. Amazon has proposed its Amazon Air service to get online purchases into the hands of customers in 30 minutes and is developing the technology required in the USA, UK and Israel. Google hopes to start delivering packages by 2017. And within the last few weeks Wal-Mart has applied to U.S. regulators for permission to test drones for home delivery, curbside pickup and conducting warehouse inventory checks.
But it's unlikely that enterprises will be using drones for customer deliveries any time soon, according to Jeff Vining, a research vice president at Gartner.
"Individual deliveries by drones are just not viable yet," he believes. "It may be fun, but the logistics for individual deliveries are just not there."
[Related video: Amazon Prime Air gets a new drone]
That's not to say that enterprises won't adopt drone technology at all in the near future. It's just that drones will be (and already are being) used first in applications where there are fewer barriers to adoption, he believes.
Attack of the data collection drones
That means it's likely that early adopters of drones will use them as remote data collection devices, Vining says. In fact Walmart hinted at this in its recent application to regulators when it mentioned conducting warehouse inventory checks – you can imagine a drone whirring down the aisles of some huge store room collecting RFID or barcode readings from cases of stock.
Other applications include monitoring field assets such as cell phone masts, checking on crops or livestock in farming businesses, or taking video footage or photographs for all kinds of purposes such as traffic monitoring and mapping, movie making and logistics planning.
And that's where CIO headaches are likely to stem from. That's because such drones will often be collecting data in the form of large video or photographic files, which will either have to be stored on the drone itself for later downloading, or streamed from the drone to a storage server (probably via some form of base station) in real time.
In either case it's likely that the files will have to be encrypted on board the drone, in case the data is intercepted while streaming or stolen from a crashed or incapacitated drone, warns Vining. This means that there will be issues with key management.
He adds that the generation of large amounts of video and still imagery may cause problems for CIOs who don't have the necessary skills to handle it. "As a CIO, you have to think about how you will index all this data, and how you will examine it," he says. "You need data management skills that you may not have needed before."
CIOs will also need to think about how this data is stored and secured, how access to it can be restricted to authorized staff, and what sort of lifecycle management policies need to be applied to it to ensure that it is deleted if no longer required, or archived for long term retention.
There are likely to be legal considerations too. "CIOs will be dragged in to a number of issues, because if you are flying over a city you may have to show how the data will be used, where it is going to be stored and so on," says Vining. "And there are privacy issues too – you don't want to (inadvertently) take pictures of naked ladies."
Obstacles still exist…for now
One reason that drones won't be used to make home deliveries in the short term is that there are plenty of obstacles still to be overcome: aside from needing the green light from regulators in every country in which they are to operate, there are question marks over whether vehicles powered by rapidly rotating propellers can safely be landed in a public area, whether such vehicles would be safe from theft when they land, whether people would allow them to fly over their property, and how much noise they would generate. There are many more questions to answer as well.
Yet slowly but surely these objections are being addressed, Mark Raskino, a vice president at Gartner points out. He says that drones don't need to land to deliver items – they can lower them down to the ground from a safe height, as demonstrated by the Russian pizza copter. This also prevents expensive drone hardware being stolen.
And while people may be unwilling to allow drones to fly over homes, they could fly over roads. Property owners in strategically important areas could even be persuaded to allow drones to overfly their property - for a fee.
Delivering to individual customers in apartment buildings in densely populated areas is always going to be difficult, and that's why Vining believes that in the medium term drone usage is more likely to be restricted to moving goods from central warehouses to local distribution points or delivery trucks, and moving small but valuable items around a business – perhaps transporting diamonds from remote mines to a central location.
"Rather than see home deliveries, it’s more likely that we will see bulk deliveries: for example a drone the size of a blimp could shuttle cargo between London and New York, " Vining concludes.