Last week, PwC announced that they were testing the use of drones in a wide array of industries, from construction to insurance. They were testing the drone technology in Poland, because it is one of the only countries in the world, apart from South Africa, that has laws which allow the use of drones at a distance that exceeds line of sight. This says a great deal about the general attitude to unmanned drones at present, but this skepticism could soon be about to change. It has been reported, admittedly by aforementioned drone enthusiasts PwC, that the drone industry could take $127 billion worth of human work by 2020. This could include, but would not be limited to, work that is currently too dangerous or difficult for humans to complete. Drones could prove invaluable in detecting gas leaks at power plants, fighting forest fires in the Canadian wilderness, or searching for survivors at the sites of natural disasters.
There are already a number of key implementations of drone technology, that could have significant benefits now and in the near future. A team from the University of Zurich have developed a tiny quadcopter which can follow the paths in dense forests from above, and could be used to search for missing people. The Phantom 4 drone, developed by Chinese company DJI and Apple, can autonomously follow its user around, whilst avoiding obstacles such as cars, pets and trees, and could be useful for filmmakers, or people who just like a drone to follow them around! DJI estimate that their drones represent 70% of the total market share worldwide, and retail their drones at $1,399, a bargain considering the sophistication of the technology. E-Commerce giant Amazon amazed the world with its advert featuring a Prime drone delivering a package in under 30 mins from order. While many were skeptical, Amazon are clearly ambitious, and one of their teams in Austria is currently developing the drones, which they hope will be operational in major cities worldwide in the next couple of years. From window cleaning to filmmaking and everything in between, drones are likely to impact every industry, with PwC reporting that infrastructure, agriculture, and transport will be the three areas of maximum utility, with a value of over $80 billion. So what’s the catch? If this affordable, transportable and easily customizable technology is available, why is it not already being implemented on a global scale?
Unfortunately, the word ‘drone’ has some rather unfortunate connotations. Mention it to some people and rather than see an opportunity, they see a threat. Type the word ‘drone’ into Google, and it’s likely that one of the articles you will see appear will have a title similar to ‘When Good Drones Go Bad’. One of the most popular Box Office films at the moment, ‘Eye in the Sky’, focusses on the moral dilemmas facing the pilot of a weaponized drone in Kenya. Associations such as this only highlight the reasons why drone regulations are being so rigidly enforced, particularly in the United States and the UK. Not to mention that a British Airways pilot reported recently that his plane had hit a drone on its approach to Heathrow Airport before he was able to land the plane safely. At the moment, anyone can buy a drone from a shop or online, and anyone can fly it. They have been used to fly over soccer stadiums and political demonstrations, and although 99% of users are conscientious and safe in the use of their drones, it is the 1% who aren’t that appear most frequently in the public eye.
Some clarification might be in order. First of all, it is highly unlikely that the drones that are to be used in industry will be piloted by just anyone – especially with health and safety being what it is today. With the way that legislation is flying about at the moment, particularly in the UK, drone licenses might become the only way of being able to use them. Furthermore, one way of ensuring that drones can’t be used as autonomous killers, as many people seem to fear, would surely be to not fit them with weapons? There are also fears that drones are the latest stage in the automation of traditional jobs, and that if they are allowed to be developed to their full potential, they could replace humans in the workplace altogether. That fear might be allayed by the biggest issue that drone manufacturers are currently looking to solve: their frankly paltry battery life, which doesn’t stretch much beyond 45 minutes at present. Let’s just hope you don’t get lost an hour or more from Mountain Rescue HQ before they fix that issue!
Drones are clearly a huge opportunity, hence the billions of dollars of investment in the industry in recent months. That being said, does their development spell disaster for workers in industries all over the world, or could the drones make their lives easier, by doing the jobs that are monotonous, dangerous or hard to reach? There is a phrase that has appeared recently in relation to the development of autonomous technology: ‘Augmented Intelligence’. This term means that AI will actually look to work alongside humans, rather than to replace them, and it is here that the drones could be most useful. Drones can be used to search the wreckage after a natural disaster, but don’t have the strength to pull a survivor free, which is where a human element will be invaluable. Likewise, many drones won’t have autonomous capabilities, and will, therefore, need a human to pilot them, so drones don’t appear to be replacing the human workforce anytime soon.
What do you think about the rise of drones? Are you excited about the prospect or are you concerned that there are too many unanswered questions?