Everything You Wanted to Know Commercial Drones

In the past 5 years it seems that the word drone has gained prevalence in popular vernacular not just for describing flying military craft, but in news stories covering commercial and personal uses of these flying devices. During the 2015 Christmas season, recreational drone sales are expected to reach an all time high. Just about any online or bricks-and-mortar retail store will be prominently displaying their drone offering. The whole drone business is made all the more impressive by the fact that the recreational drone industry barely existed 5 years ago. This is illustrated no better than by pointing out that DJI, one of the first drone manufactures, was founded in 2010!

But how exactly is a dronedefined and where did the word originate? What types of drones exist and what kind of technology is available to the average consumer?This article will answer all of these questions. We will also list the top commercial drone brands and offer some quick tips to the first time buyer.

Origins of the Word
The word drone has been in use for several hundred years. In fact, it has appeared in books as early as the 16th century. To analyze its origins, we used Google’s NgramViewer1. This tool is one of those Google projects you never heard of, but upon learning of its existence you wonder why nobody thought of it earlier. Beginning in the early 2000s, Google was busy scanning every book the company could get their hands on. The result is a database that has a record of most every printed word since 1500. True to form, Google has made this tool free for anybody to use. Simply type a word or expression in the Ngram Viewer to see how prevalent it has been in the past 500 years.

As can be seen from figure 1 below, the word “Drone” has been in use since the 1500s.

google-ngrams

Figure 1: Usage of the word Drone between 1500 – 2010 as identified by Google Ngrams

Of course back when King Henry VII was busy separating England from the Catholic Church and the western world just figured out it was in fact not flat, there were certainly no flying machines roaming about the skies. Instead, the word “drone” was used in science to describe a particular male honeybee. A Drone’s roleis not collect pollen or defend the nest against foreign invaders (they don’t even have stingers). Instead their sole task and purpose in life is to mate with the queen and they pass their time lazily waiting for her to call up them.

This apparent laziness found in drone bees eventually made its way to explain an indolent human being. In the 17th century, someone who did nothing with their time would be referred to as a “drone”.Perhaps the modern day equivalent would be a “slacker”.

So what is the connection between the quintessential “lazy bum” and an unmanned flying vehicle?

To understand this, we jump ahead in history to the dawn of aviation. During the First World War, air warfare was a new way to fight.To train new pilots who had nobody to learn from, first the British and then the Americans practiced air-to-air combat by shooting at unmanned radio-controlled aircraft2. Britain developed the first of such aircraft and named it DH 82B Queen Bee.

Upon seeing a demonstration of the aircraft in England, U.S. Admiral William H. Stanley commissioned the U.S. navy to develop a similar device for American pilots3. The American aircraft type was named a drone in recognition of the original Queen Bee. The idea was that a Drone could only be controlled if a Mother, that is someone with a radio controller on the ground, directed it. From this point in history until today, the word “Drone” has been used mostly to describe either military reconnaissance or aerial bombing activity. Unknown to most, drones with intelligence collection and strikercapabilities have been used during the Second World War, the cold war, the Vietnam War, the Yom Kippur Warand more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact just about every country’s military has drones.

A Drone versus an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle
An aircraft is technically only a drone if is flying without human input, or to put it another way, an unmanned aircraft that has been pre-programmed to fly autonomously. Once an aircraft is either manned or flown via a remote controller, it ceases to be a drone and, technically at least, becomes a UAV or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. This differentiation is generally lost on the average citizen as we tend to call anything unmanned a drone. However, due to the negative connotation of the word, the U.S. military has made great efforts to make the distinction between a UAV and a drone, pointing out that the military in fact only rarely use drones. Of course nobody is being fooled, we all know that the military is in the business of spying on people and dropping bombs on them.

Since our goal in this article is clear communication, we will use the word “drone” regardless if the device is on autopilot or controlled by a human on the ground. We are also only focusing on commercial drones which have video recording capabilities, either via a built in camera or a bracket that can accept a camera.

Commercial Drones in Business
We touched on drone use within business in the opening paragraph. It seems that all kinds of businesses are incorporating drones into their business models. Much as in the early days of the internet, many companies are investing in this technology not necessarily because they know where it will take them, but because it’s cool, holds promise, and everybody else is doing it. On July 9, 2014, Amazon grabbed the headlines by announcing that the company was seeking FAA approval to begin testing drones for package delivery. The company calls the project Prime Air4.Not to be left out, Wal-Mart got into the action in 2015 by seeking their own drone license5.

Google’sProject Wing6is also a drone-based delivery program which was also launched in the summer of 2014. The major distinction between Google and other companies however is that the internet giant is focusing, not on delivering to consumers, but instead on supplying aid to disaster relief areas. The idea is that drones could cost effectively delivery food, water, medicine and other life-saving supplies to populations devastated by natural disasters.In fact, drones have already been used for disaster relief; following the March 2011 tsunami in Japan, a drone was used to gather information about the damaged area, including a close-up survey of the damaged nuclear reactor.

There are dozens of other applications which drones have been impacting. Examples include the filmmaking industry, policing activities, crop management, wind turbine inspection, crowd/demonstrator control, and even pizza home delivery. Some of these are exciting while others a little scary. And while your friendly UPS or FedEx driver won’t be replaced any time soon, the examples above do illustrate the popularity of the devices.

Drones Business Disruption
While some companies are changing the market by using drones to strengthen their business models, others are coming under threat as a result ofdrone technology. The most notable is GoPro whose business model could be severely disrupted by drone consumers who favor being recorded by a non-GoPro flying camera. Go-Pro is not oblivious to this reality and the company is working hard to develop their own line of drones7. Their challengesof course will be that they were not the first to market and they will have many more competitors than their cameras ever did.

Slingshot is another smaller company that is threatened by drone technology. This company is the maker of a tripod that can accept any video recorder which then automatically tracks and follows a person wearing an RFID band. In this way someone can make a recording of themselves while moving without requiring a cameraman. It’s a great technology but one that is severely under threat by drones. While a Slingshot will have a much longer battery life (for now) than a drone, the huge benefit of a drone is that it can be programmed to move and finish its journey at the same location as the operator.

Civilian Popularity Of Drones
With regards to their popularity among civilian users, we hear about commercialdrones all the time. The most common news story is a drone interfering with commercial aircraft. Next perhaps is a drone invading a neighbor’s“private airspace” (a term which still needs to be legally defined).

Despite these growing pains, drone sales to private individuals continues to rise year after year. The graph in figure 2 below shows commercial sales growth estimates as identified by Investors.com8. The top graph shows unit sales from now until 2025, while the lower graph shows projected dollar sales, which are expected to hit $4 billion in the same period. While these graphs are probably based on many assumptions which may or may not materialize, even if the estimates are off by 50%, we’re still talking about a $2 billion dollar drone industry. To put this into context, this is the size of the online dating industry.

units-and-dollars

Figure 2: Projected Drones Sales in Units and Dollars

In a sense we are in the golden age of civilian drone usage. There are dozens of manufacturers in the market each with their unique approach and philosophy to drone manufacturing. With time, we expect some technologies to dominate others. For example, the quad-copter design seems to be a favorite by most manufacturers. This box-shaped design involves placing four rotors on each corner of the unit thereby giving it power and stability. With time better designs as well as improved quality and safety standards will emerge. Each month seems to include a news story about a new drone technology or product.

Buying Considerations
Since many reading this will be interested in buying a drone of their own, we have listed the main characteristics to consider when selecting a model. In no particular order,we would recommend considering the following:

Camera Quality: Not all cameras are created equally and often the camera you want will depend on what you will be shooting. For example a fisheye lens may be great for recording a lively wedding dance floor, but totally inadequate for producing cinematic quality. And then some drones are supplied without a camera. These will include a universal bracket to which a camera can be mounted. Your drone purchase will depend on yourvideographic goals: are you excited to upload to YouTube, or do you have Oscar dreams? It matters.

Flight Time: Drones are battery powered and as such have a limited airborne time. Batteries are heavy after all. A drone will stay airborne from anywherebetween 20 and 40 minutes. Some companies have designs that allow for exchanging a unit’s batteries while others go down the cell phone design approach and encase everything into the unit.

Follow-Me Technology: We don’t know the actual technical terminology to use for this, but this is the ability for the drone to follow a user, usually via a RFID wristband. Not all do.

Pre-Programmable: Some drones can be pre-programmed to follow a particular flight path. This will include setting waypoints, including altitude. The idea here is that the drone can operate on its own.

Avoidance Technology: The worst thing one wants to do is loose a $1,000 drone because of a mid-air collision. Some units are programmed to avoid obstacles such as trees and birds. Of course this feature comes at a premium price.

Controller Comfort:The controller is the device the operator is using on the ground. If at all possible, check out videos and review of controllers. This can be a matter of taste more than anything else, but it is the part of the device that a user will be interacting with the most.

Industry Leaders
Believe it or not, today there are probably close to 100 commercial drone manufacturesin every country from China to the U.S. to Germany. The emerging heavyweights in the industry are DJI (China) (www.dji.com), Parrot (France), (www.parrot.fr) Hexo+ (United States)(www.hexo.com), and Ascending Technologies (Germany) (http://www.asctec.de/). While these companies make up the largest portion of the market, there are many smaller players that are making niche products. Two illustrative examples of the diversity of this market include Brick Drones (www.brickdrones.com) which are made out of Logs and the super cool Nixie (http://flynixie.com) which, while still in development, is a wearable watch that becomes a camera drone and takes incredible selfie shots. This device certainly has a “wow factor”. Just check out the promotional video on the company’s homepage9.

Safety and Regulation
Notreatment of commercial drones would be complete without covering public safety and the associated laws and regulations that are surely coming as a result of emerging drone technology. The truth is that drones can be dangerous. The FAA is mostly concerned with them hitting aircraft. While certainly a valid worry, equally important is the risk of a 2 pound object falling from the sky and crashing into personal property or worse, on top of someone. From New York to Seattle, private drones have been involved in accidents which have caused humans injury. In New York, a school teacher crashed his drone at the US Open and in Seattle a women was hit on the head when a drone crashed into a building and then fell on top of her10,11.

These are just two of hundreds of recorded drone accidents around the world. Given the immaturity of this new industry, we can expect on-going development and refinement of laws at both the state and federal levels.

Currently the only real law that exists is that drones that will be used for commercial use (i.e. to make money) must be registered with the FAA. Realistically, it can be expected that all drones of a certain size will need to be registered at some level. But when this will be implemented and enforced is at this point anybody’s guess.

In 2015 an FAA task force asked to evaluate civilian drone safety recommended that all private drones weighing more than 500 grams be required to be registered with the FAA12.The thinking is that any object larger than 500 could, in theory, bring down an airplane. This is an extreme weight limit which would also include some children’s toys so it is not likely to go into law. But something will come of it for sure. As a reference point, Europe’s drone registration requirement is 1kg while Canada’s is 2kg.

Nothing was mentioned about drones falling on top of people, but legislation cover this aspect of drone safety is sure to come soon.

Flying On
Whether it be delivering merchandise or filming a big family moment, we are at the very early stages of the non-militaristic use of drones. Many usesof drones and probably entire industries have not even been thought of so the exact size of the industry is still probably unknown. What is for certain however is that it will be huge. Who knows, one day owning a drone just might be as popular as awning a cell phone. Either way, ConnexDrones will stay on top of these developments and we will be reporting them to you regularly.

References:

  1. Google’s Ngram viewer can be found at: https://books.google.com/ngrams
  2. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/spiesfly/uavs_05.html
  3. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324110404578625803736954968`
  4. Prime Air: http://www.amazon.com/b?node=8037720011
  5. Wal-Mart Drones: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/27/business/walmart-seeks-permit-to-do-tests-with-drones.html?_r=0
  6. http://www.popsci.com/google-wing-will-deliver-by-drone-in-2017-executive-says
  7. https://gopro.com/news/nick-woodman-talks-virtual-reality-and-drones
  8. http://news.investors.com/technology/072215-762954-drone-sales-forecast-2015-to-2025-from-tractica.htm
  9. FlyNixie on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPf9vHd4dtk
  10. http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/09/04/437539727/drone-crash-at-u-s-open-new-york-city-teacher-arrested
  11. http://abcnews.go.com/US/woman-knocked-drone-seattle-pride-parade-city/story?id=32112670
  12. http://www.faa.gov/news/press_releases/news_story.cfm?newsId=18295