Before companies head off into the wild blue yonder, however, several things have to happen. The federal government needs to figure out how to regulate the commercial use of drones. Drone vendors need to figure out their business models. And corporate users need to figure out how drones will fit into their IT operations.
Today, the market for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), a.k.a. drones, is dominated by defense applications like the multi-million-dollar Predator. However, ABI Research predicts the commercial market for small UAVs will grow from an estimated $652 million in 2014 to more than $5.1 billion by 2019, becoming twice as large as the military/civil defense market, says Dan Kara, practice director of robotics at the market research company.
If thing unfold as ABI forecasts, IT departments need to prepare now for the potential drone invasion and the data they collect. Exactly how they should prepare depends on the final form of drone regulation as well as how drone vendors decide to sell to the enterprise market. Nevertheless, IT needs to be ready to deal with a new type of big data, the type that comes from drones.
Vendors from all markets are moving to sell small commercial UAVs. Low-end vendors that have so far sold just to consumers for a few hundred dollars are moving upstream, Kara says. For example, UAV manufacturer DJI has started selling more powerful models designed for professional filmmakers, while Horizon Hobby, known for selling toy drones, recently created Horizon Precision Systems to target commercial users. Meanwhile, defense contractors are moving down market.
For example, Lockheed Martin has acquired Procerus Technologies, which develops less-expensive UAVs for civil public safety and first responders. In addition, there are entirely new entrants, including Google, which bought drone-maker Titan and plans to start testing drones later this year, and Amazon Prime Air, which plans to use its drones for package delivery.
That’s a lot of activity for a device that’s banned for commercial purposes. Although the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has long allowed recreational UAV use if operators follow certain safety precautions, industry players waited years for the FAA to come out with regulations for commercial use. It finally unveiled a proposal in February, to mixed reactions.
Some commercial proponents think the rules are too restrictive. For example, drones would have to fly below 500 feet, during daylight and within sight of the operator. Such conditions are impractical for delivering packages, for example. Still, as the FAA gathers public comment (and industry increases its lobbying), the regulations could change significantly between now and 2017, when they are expected to be finalized.