The Future of Drones: Uncertain, Promising and Pretty Awesome

artwork of drones in the sky above a city
Could the skies one day be blackened by drones? Advances in technology suggest so, though the U.S. may fall behind as the tech flounders in regulatory limbo. (Image credit: By Karl Tate, Infographics Artist)

When filmmaker George Lucas popularized droids — worker robots designed to tend to humanity's every need — in the 1977 movie "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope," he seemed like a sci-fi visionary. But fast-forward nearly 40 years, and the idea of flying surveillance cameras, robotic companions and even unmanned aircraft carrying supplies around the planet is swiftly becoming mainstream.

The first drone delivery in the United States took place this past summer, marking an important milestone in the development of the new technology. But even though Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made headlines in 2013 when he unveiled the company's vision for using delivery drones, the online retail giant was not the one to carry out the first-ever delivery flight.

Instead, Australian startup Flirtey, in partnership with Virginia Tech and NASA, used a drone to carry 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) of medical supplies from an airfield in Virginia to a remote clinic about a mile away over three 3-minute flights. While the demonstration was a landmark moment for drone technology and policy, it was a far cry from Amazon's vision of a fleet of drones delivering online purchases to customers' doorsteps within 30 minutes. [Best Drones for You, from our sister site Tom's Guide]

Still, Amazon is committed to making its drone delivery program, dubbed Prime Air, a reality. In April, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted the company permission to begin testing its drones. But Amazon isn't the only tech giant doubling down on drone technology.

In July, Facebook revealed that it had completed a full-size version of its solar-powered Aquila drone, which is now ready for testing in the United Kingdom. The huge robotic flier, which has the same wingspan as a Boeing 737 jetliner, is designed to circle around in the stratosphere (the layer of Earth's atmosphere located between 6 and 30 miles, or 10 to 48 kilometers, above the planet's surface)and use lasers to beam Internet access to the most remote corners of the world.

A similar drone developed by Google crashed during a test run in New Mexico in May, but the company is also developing a delivery service, known as Project Wing, to compete with Amazon's Prime Air.

While these developments grab headlines, they tend to overshadow the real progress being made in the drone industry, experts say. Many companies are leveraging drones' ability to capture high-resolution imagery using tech ranging from regular cameras to laser scanners, leading the FAA to predict that drones will spawn a $90 billion industry within a decade.

Drones could help farmers prioritize where to apply fertilizer. They also could help energy companies monitor their infrastructure. Drones could even enable emergency response teams to quickly map the extent of damage after natural disasters. [Photos from Above: 8 Cool Camera-Carrying Drones]

"There's been even more explosive growth than I expected," said Dan Kara, practice director for robotics at the technology consulting firm ABI Research in Oyster Bay, New York. And because the technology is still in its infancy, Kara said, the potential is limitless. "There will be applications that will just come over the wall," he told Live Science. "If you think of these things as basically just airborne mobile sensors, all kinds of uses open up."

Regulatory reform

Unmanned aerial vehicles have been increasingly popular in recent years. (See full infographic) (Image credit: by Ross Toro, Infographics Artist)

Until this year, strict regulations threatened to put the brakes on the burgeoning drone industry. But in February, the FAA — the agency responsible for regulating U.S. airspace — released a proposed framework for the commercial use of small drones (unmanned aircraft systems weighing less than 55 lbs. (25 kg)). Under the proposed FAA rules, drones would only be permitted to fly during the day and within operators' visual line of sight.

Many industry members were surprised by how progressive the rules were, considering the agency's previously draconian stance on the commercial use of drones. "The proposed rules certainly weren't as onerous as we expected," said Colin Snow, CEO and founder of Drone Analyst, a drone research and consulting company based in Redwood City, California.

The rules will not go into effect until next summer at the earliest, but the FAA has sped up turnarounds for so-called Section 333 exemptions that let companies use drones in the interim. Between September 2014 and March 2015, the agency granted just 66 exemptions, but in April, it started fast-tracking applications that were similar to previous requests and has now granted nearly 2,000 such exemptions.

In May, the FAA introduced the Pathfinder Program, in partnership with CNN, to test drones for newsgathering in urban areas. As part of the program, the drone firm PrecisionHawk and transport company BNSF Railroad are also testing drone flights beyond the pilot's visual line of sight. That same month, the agency also granted the six unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) test sites it helped set up around the country blanket authorization to fly any drone below 200 feet (61 meters), replacing the need to get separate approvals for every robotic aircraft. [5 Surprising Ways Drones Could Be Used in the Future]

But not everyone is satisfied with these incremental steps. Michael Drobac, executive director of the industry-backed Small UAV Coalition, said the proposals are less restrictive than anticipated, but only because expectations for how the FAA would handle the emerging tech were so low. He said he credits Congress with "putting the fire under" the FAA. However, without allowances for flying these UAS beyond visual line of sight, and without separate rules for safer micro-UAS that weigh less than 4.4 lbs. (2 kg), the industry will remain hamstrung, he noted.

"Personally, I am very disheartened, because it doesn't make any sense that the biggest problem companies face are arbitrary and capricious rules," Drobac told Live Science.

A spokesman for the FAA denied that pressure from Congress had any impact on the agency, and pointed out that promoting commercial drone use is not its mandate. "Our primary goal in integrating UAS into the airspace is to maintain today's ultra-high level of safety," he said. He added that separate micro-UAS rules could eventually make it into the final regulations, as the agency asked for input on the proposed framework announced in February.

The FAA's detractors point out that some other countries, such as Canada and Switzerland, have more relaxed regulatory environments. But with more than 19,000 airports; 600 air traffic control facilities; and far more general aviation concerns to oversee, U.S. airspace is arguably the most complex in the world. "The FAA has been in the business of integrating new technology into U.S. airspace for 50 years," the spokesman said. "I have no doubt we will be able to do the same with UAS, but it has to be done in a safe and incremental way."

Soaring expectations

Predictions for the drone industry vary greatly. The consulting firm Deloitte predicts that total revenue from nonmilitary drones in 2015 will be between $200 million and $400 million — equivalent to the price of a single midsize passenger jet. Longer-term forecasts are more optimistic, estimating commercial drones could become a billion-dollar industry by the 2020s.

Yet Snow said the restriction on flying drones beyond the visual line of sight means ambitious projects like Google's Project Wing and Amazon's Prime Air likely won't dominate the market. At least not anytime soon. "As much as people want it to be, it's just headlines," he said.

Based on the types of initiatives that have already been granted exemptions, drones used for film, video and photography will likely lead the way. Already, these projects account for nearly half of all FAA approvals so far. But higher margins in engineering, surveying and agriculture could lead these industries to slowly come to the forefront, experts say. [How Unmanned Drone Aircraft Work (Infographic)]

An industry report released by Drone Analyst, titled "Commercial Drones: Current State of the US Industry," noted that investments in drone technology from January 2015 through May 2015 totaled $172 million — more than the total from the previous five years combined. Most of this money came from venture capital investments, but technology companies such as GE, Qualcomm and Intel are also piling in, convinced that wirelessly connected drones could one day be a part of the Internet of Things, a network of Web-connected devices  like washing machines and cars that communicate with one another.

A report authored by Kara at ABI in January predicted that by 2019, the commercial small UAS sector would have revenue of more than $5.1 billion — five times the revenue of the consumer drone market and more than twice the revenues of the combined military and civil market currently dominating the industry. Kara said that moves by both military and consumer drone makers into the commercial market — such as Lockheed Martin's purchase of avionics developer Procerus Technologies and Parrot's acquisition of senseFly — show the big players agree.

Kara thinks the market's main driver will be the services associated with drones, such as fleet management systems and data processing. "A massive amount of data needs to be manipulated in complex ways," he said. "That's where the money is being made." Sony's decision in July to begin providing surveying and inspection data services is a perfect example of that, he said.

Traffic headache

A booming industry brings with it the challenge of integrating thousands of new aircraft into the national airspace. Drones are likely to share the section of the sky below 500 feet (152 m) with helicopters, recreational aircraft and crop dusters. But their diminutive size makes drones hard to detect on radar, which poses challenges for any air traffic management (ATM) system for drones.

In January, PrecisionHawk revealed its LATAS (Low Altitude Tracking and Avoidance System), a lightweight system that can be built into a drone's circuits. LATAS provides flight planning, tracking and avoidance over 2G cellular networks. A prototype will be tested as part of the firm's Pathfinder Program project.

Google's new drone delivery project could rival Amazon's. (Image credit: YouTube Screenshot, Google)

NASA is also working on the problem in partnership with firms like Google and Amazon, as well as PrecisionHawk. The space agency's proposed UAS Traffic Management System (UTM) would let it both track drone traffic and send operators alerts about routing, weather and restricted airspace. Like LATAS, the traffic management system designed by NASA is likely to use cellular networks for communication, while drones' onboard GPS will be used for tracking. The cloud-based system would be largely automatic and self-optimizing, which means humans would only need to intervene in the event of an emergency.

"We are trying to learn from history and put a system in place ahead of time," said Parimal Kopardekar, who leads the NASA project. It's not yet clear who would operate the service, though. Drone Analyst's Snow said the U.S. Department of Transportation doesn't have the funding, and drone operators are unlikely to step up without a guarantee of revenue.

Speaking at NASA's first Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Traffic Management Convention in August, Gur Kimchi, co-founder of Amazon's Prime Air, suggested that reserving airspace between 200 and 400 feet (61 to 122 m) for commercial drones could help segregate air traffic.

Google used the event to outline its development of automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast technology for drones, which uses satellites to determine and regularly broadcast the positions of aircraft. The technology will be required for all manned aircraft by 2020, and Google hopes drones could follow if the company can produce systems for less than $2,000 each.

Reckless recreation

Whatever the final solution is, the need for overarching control of drone traffic is becoming more evident. "There is urgent need to make airspace operations safer," Kopardekar said. "We are already seeing individual drones operating in areas where they should not."

More than 190 incidents involving personal drones crashing, narrowly missing aircraft or entering restricted airspace were reported to the FAA over the last 10 months of 2014. With consumer market leader DJI projected to sell more than $1 billion worth of drones in 2015, according to the company, these problems will likely escalate. Falling prices and the ability to easily capture stunning visuals have made drones the must-have gadget for technology lovers. [Angry Chimp Attack! 5 Bizarre Drone Crashes]

A host of companies are now working on hobbyist drones capable of following their owners autonomously. The company AirDog won rave reviews for a drone that uses long-range Bluetooth to track and follow its operator. And Fotokite wowed audiences at a TED talk in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2014 with a tethered camera drone, and launched its first consumer product in August.

A poll conducted for Reuters by Ipsos in February found that 73 percent of respondents want stricter regulations for consumer drones. But although the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 imposes basic limits on the use of private drones, it does not give the FAA a mandate to regulate them.

However, on Oct. 19, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that it will soon require both hobbyists and commercial operators to register their recreational drones in a national registry, to make it easier to track down rule violators. Moreover, in June, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced the Consumer Drone Safety Act, which would require the FAA to enforce restrictions on private drones as well as obligate manufacturers to include safety technology, such as collision avoidance and transponders.

However, many of these technologies are still in their infancy, and would likely drive up the cost of producing consumer drones, which could stifle innovation in the field, experts say. Most drone regulations proposed by politicians are redundant, as many of the issues are covered by existing laws, Drobac said. For instance, interfering with air traffic is already a punishable offense. "It's very popular to introduce a bill on a hot technology," Drobac said. "It's just a way to get their names on the front of the paper."

Big Brother

Still, clarification is needed on how policymakers should approach regulations on the use of drones, said Douglas Wood, a lawyer at the Reed Smith law firm in New York City who edited a report on drone law titled "Crowded Skies" earlier this year.

In May, Illinois state police were granted permission to fly drones to take photos at crime scenes and crash sites. The Reuters poll found that 68 percent of respondents support police flying drones to solve crimes, and 62 percent support using them to deter crime by providing a mobile platform for surveillance cameras. 

But if drone use extends to police surveillance, it will raise issues around constitutional rights, especially those covering "unreasonable search and seizure," Wood said.

"The main question will be, are these things meant to be stealthy? Surveillance can now be done in a far more clandestine way," Wood said. To address the issue, a Presidential Memorandum accompanying the FAA's proposals in February placed limits on government agencies' use of drone data and required them to create, and regularly update, drone policies consistent with the Constitution and the law. In May, the U.S. Department of Justice released its own guidelines on the matter, barring federal law enforcement agencies from using drones to monitor activity protected by the First Amendment, such as peaceful protests.

And it's not just federal lawmakers who have jumped on the bandwagon: 25 states are considering legislation related to drones this year. In the most extreme example, an Oklahoma state senator proposed a bill allowing people to shoot down drones flying above their property. But according to Wood, the majority of the proposed bills relate to privacy and trespassing.

"What we are seeing is relatively simple augmentations being added to state laws to include drones, for the fear that some of the language is a bit archaic," Wood said. He thinks new statutes are unlikely to help, however, and he thinks precedents will be determined by case law instead. Whether a person photographs a person from a drone or a telescopic camera lens, the offense is the same, he added.

But regardless of whether the American public is enthusiastic about drones, it seems that little will be able to stand in the way of their widespread adoption. Some experts, including Kara, wonder if the technology could share the same fate as 3D printing, where initial optimism was replaced by questions about how broadly it can actually be applied. Nonetheless, in the time since Kara released his research in January, there have been no signs of a slowdown.

"I was really nervous I had overestimated the marketplace, because I got a little pushback at the time," he said. "But I've been traveling around, and everywhere I look, there's new products and new hardware. It's everywhere."

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Edd Gent
Live Science Contributor
Edd Gent is a British freelance science writer now living in India. His main interests are the wackier fringes of computer science, engineering, bioscience and science policy. Edd has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Politics and International Relations and is an NCTJ qualified senior reporter. In his spare time he likes to go rock climbing and explore his newly adopted home.