MADISON, Wis. — Consumer drones never fail to attract a huge crowd at big trade events. At the Paris Air Show last month, I noticed that even the uniformed aviation officers were captivated by the toy drones flying in a choreographed dance routine set up by Parrot at the Salon du Bourget.
Showbiz aside, commercial drones are already demonstrating a number of compelling applications. They range from 3D-mapping, infrastructure (bridges, oil pipes, gas lines and roads) inspection and Hollywood movies to farming, aircraft fleet inspection, aerial photography for properties and search-and-rescue operations when disasters hit.
To have unmanned aerial vehicles fly over certain areas, gather intelligence, and detect things that otherwise couldn’t be seen before – without huge investment – is simply exciting.
On the other hand, it’s far too early to celebrate the success of non-military drones.
'High profile and niche'
Deloitte, in a recent report, called drones “high profile” and “niche.” Deloitte predicts that in 2015 the “active base” of non-military drones costing $200 or more should exceed one million units for the first time.
Although that sounds like a lot of drones, looking at the sales of non-military drones in 2015 alone, Deloitte expects the number to be about 300,000 units. More importantly, a majority will be toy-like hobby devices bought by consumers.
Deloitte isn’t impressed with the size of the [drone] industry, either. It predicts industry revenues at $200-$400 million in 2015, which the report said is “equivalent to the list price of a single, mid-sized passenger jet.”
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Drones today could fall far short of users’ expectations on the commercial market. For certain applications, five to 10 minutes flying time won’t cut it.
Many lightweight drones are battery-powered devices. As with any such devices (i.e. electric cars, smartphones), drones face range anxiety, limited flight time and payload restrictions. The last thing the drone industry wants to see is a drone whose battery expires in mid-flight above a crowd.
Drones also face serious regulatory challenges, because drones and piloted aircraft share the sky. The development of new rules for unmanned flying vehicles has a parallel to designing new regulations for autonomous cars which will share the road with manned vehicles.
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