Often referred to as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), drones were a hot topic from analysts in 2014. Predictions included the concept of drones taking over the military, the extinction of helicopters due to obscurity, and small unmanned flying drones replacing food and mail delivery services. As optimistic as the predictions seemed, it saw the start of preparation from enterprise IT departments to ready themselves for this massive quantum shift. Businesses quickly started to ramp up discussions on the value of drones and how they could be implemented as a means to improve business processes, increase safety, and drive up profits.
Fast-food restaurants and delivery services started to plan delivery by drone. Just this week, Amazon finally received approval to operate its fleet of delivery drones from the Federal Aviation Administration. The agriculture industry, including family farmers, started to look at using drones to water crops, spray pesticides, and fertilize. Engineering companies invested in plans and partners to implement UAS surveys and inspections. With all of the planning and even some government approvals, it makes one wonder, where are all the drones?
The hype continued into 2015 when we listened to municipalities speak of dedicated drone lanes to handle the massive amount of UAV traffic that was expected. 2016 brought more of the same. Only this time, the predictions were expressed in terms of revenue and profit numbers. But then the brakes went on. In 2016, many corporate plans were put on hold as municipalities and regulatory agencies began to impose and enforce regulatory compliance and administration. Coincidentally, it was about this time that we began to observe the use of drones for government surveillance. Like Groundhog Day, we continue to be stuck in the endless loop of approvals and administration that do tend to be the death of innovation.
While dedicated drone lanes do not seem to be necessary for the short term, there are some applications that have been able to circumvent regulatory compliance and are indeed helping to increase the bottom line. The innovators among us have not let compliance and regulation stop progress. There is no question that state-of-the-art technology can always elevate the enterprise to a new level. Drones are indeed living among us, and the applications are as diverse as an artist’s color palette.
Why take your eye off the ball? While some businesses can indeed thrive by offering a long menu of services, higher degrees of success seem to be returned when we pursue our vision with laser focus. Instead of building an internal department to handle drone services, why not engage a drones-as-a-service (DaaS) business partner? The concept of DaaS is the same as any X-as-a-service offering. To offer a turnkey solution for a specific business process that is already proven to return a positive cost-benefit analysis. The concept is solid. To build a DaaS business by supplying cutting edge hardware, reliable and agile software, and to understand and circumvent all of the research and development costs, as well as the administrative costs incurred to achieve regulatory compliance challenges. Start-ups are grasping this concept and running straight to the bank, and large cash-ready organizations are building new profit centers that are proving to be quite lucrative. Their hook is to provide the automation and end-to-end management of drone operation workflows, including flight control and data analysis.
Safety is always front of mind for engineering companies responsible for planning, building, and maintaining gas, power, and water plants. Inspections can mean access to confined spaces and extreme temperatures. Chemical engineers have integrated the use of UAVs and robotics to remove the risks associated with confined space entry and aerial work. This is a very important initiative, as can be supported by statistics released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics on fatal occupational injuries by event. Losing one employee, colleague, partner, father, mother, son, or daughter to a workplace incident is considered unacceptable, and yet statistics show that we expose our employees to hazardous conditions on a daily basis. Historically, we had no option, but that has now changed through the use of drones in the workplace. As early as 2015, Dow Chemical was already maneuvering the administration required to allow them to activate drones for the use of inspections. More recently, Bechtel has implemented a fleet of drones to assist with inspections and fleet management.
Municipal services: Drones to the rescue
Municipalities, while often labeled with causing a halt to innovation, are also embracing the increased efficiencies that can be realized. In Canada, drones are now being used for hot-spot detection in firefighting, as well as monitoring and inspecting remote roads. If, like me, you can’t get enough of real-life feel-good stories, add drone rescue to your search criteria. In an otherwise seemingly impossible situation, drones have increased the ability of municipal police and fire departments to successfully locate and rescue people and animals from a fate that might otherwise have presented fatal results.
Drones are now deployed in the case of natural and man-made disasters, as well as under the circumstances of war, to deliver emergency first aid, medical supplies, blood, and food rations. Testing is also underway for drones with the capacity to accommodate emergency human transport. Understandably, this testing is rather extensive, and we won’t be seeing this type of sky traffic en masse in the foreseeable future, which means that this is an area of growth and potentially a good investment.
Step aside, George Orwell — It’s not just about Big Brother
It turns out that when faced with the thought of drones entering our culture, our minds immediately go to images embedded into our psyche from the George Orwell novel “1984.” It’s no wonder. As a master of sci-fi, George Orwell described a fictional dystopian society and the obliteration of both privacy and intimacy. Like the sound of the two bass chords that forever will cause our minds to conjure images of deep water and evil sharks, drones will always cause our minds to experience the fear of losing whatever privacy we have left. While this noise may cause some very relevant concern of drones being far too closely aligned with Big Brother, entrepreneurs and innovators have taken the technology to a completely different level with a focus not about spying, but rather on safety and accessibility. We need to continue to analyze and assess this new technology as a security concern, but we cannot allow that to cause a roadblock from using this technology to drive innovation, improve hazardous and obsolete business processes, and ultimately increase the number sitting at the bottom line of our balance sheet.
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