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December 9th, 2014
Are drones more like Segways or smartphones?

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With holiday shopping underway, it seems odd that drones are being promoted on so many gift suggestion lists given a parallel backlash that includes a recent near miss at an airport in England. The  reality is that these devices take some skill to fly, with even the autopilot option requiring training, particularly in the need to map routes that avoid poles and lines.

Given the out-of-control hype, and the widespread availability of cheap and capable consumer platforms, how might the trajectory proceed? The Segway and smartphone comparison is instructive as one of these has clearly lived up to the hype, while each have a clear utility. Are we destined to see drones miss the mainstream and be looked upon with some disdain by the cool kids? Or, are we going to see widespread adoption to the point where we all battle a bit to have the latest and greatest drone technology, without much qualms about the cost?

All in the Ease

When in comes to the start of the drone explosion, it was all about hobbyists tearing into the tech and fashioning complex hardware and software combinations so that these things could fly themselves. The global outpouring of talent to address these problems continues to this day, with puzzle solving that was not all about the money. This hacker start clearly jumpstarted the wider consumer adoption as several glaring reliability issues were addressed.

For drones to get to more ubiquitous use, there’s more than FAA regulations in the way. While regulations could clearly put a hamper on their use, technology that safeguards the public while also providing great ease of use is the answer to ease regulation and also speed wider use. We need technology that capably works out of the box with little amounts of instruction reading and lots of capabilities, while also driving down the danger and annoyance.

Personal and Professional

The fact that consumer drones and professional drones are on parallel paths of development is not all that different from what happened with GPS adoption. GPS was available early on the amateur sailors and recreationists, while also forging a professional path where accuracy was paramount. Looking at where drones are today, we can see that the professional tools will become more capable and accurate, with interchangeable and even fused sensor arrays, while consumer products will get easier and more intuitive.

The professional trajectory is also tied to longer and more stable flights with a rugged and reliable frame that can handle the harsh environments where these flying sensors shine. Professionals also would like to drive down the amount of time and skill it takes to process the sensor feeds to deliver information products. More capable software and cloud-based hosting services is something that will serve both consumers and professionals, with communities of practice that could easily become targeted data markets where both stand to profit.

Clearly Ahead

In this age of automation, the fate of drones aren’t about the amazing perspective that they afford us, although that’s interesting. It’s about the business or process advantage that they provide. Drones have proven themselves very capable in a whole host of industries, and primarily where there are dangerous conditions that make it difficult for more traditional means, such as surveying mines or spraying pesticides on crops. There are clear advantages in many areas, and not just because the platforms are cheaper and more nimble with a low labor cost.

Getting back to the question, the Segway has proven to be a small niche because it isn’t dramatically better than other forms of transportation, although it is novel. The smartphone has proven its worth by offering a handheld sensor combination that keeps up connected and allows us to easily measure, record and share the details of our life. Drones are set to make inroads by offering a new and personalized extension to our perception. They hold the promise of providing us with as yet unknown inputs that give us an edge.

Drones are more like smartphones. They are a soon-to-be ubiquitous force that causes great changes in how cheaply and efficiently we deliver a full range of services. They are like smartphones in another way, because they are global and have already lead the rise of new and successful companies in unfamiliar geographies.

It’s hard to say how common drones will become in our skies, and if so whether we’ll all cherish no-fly zones. They are an increasing crucible for our engineering know-how with a great deal riding on the answers that our designers devize. This impetus ensures that we’ll make good progress to make them more accessible and acceptable, keeping drones at the forefront of leading the robot charge.

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