Following recent reports that the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) was revising its policy on drones, several corporates protested saying that it would ground commercial growth. Among the rules being contested is the proposal that the drones can fly only as far as the operator can see them. The FAA has also said that drones can't be flown over people who are not involved with the flight, and cannot fly higher than 500 feet or at night. The only exceptions to this rule are the agriculture and oil and gas exploration industry. Predictably, this left early adopters such as Amazon in a bit of a bind as the new regulations would not allow them to use drones for delivering packages in the US.
The main concern, however, is that while the hands of US enterprises are tied, the competition across the Atlantic is hotting up. British startup Torquing Group has created a small drone, the ZANO, which it claims can take photos and videos from new and interesting angles. The Zano can comfortably fit in the palm of your hand, and can be operated by a mobile app, by simply pointing the phone in the desired direction. Should the drone fly beyond its 15-30 meter range, the phone automatically navigates back. But the uses of drones are far more diverse. In the future, small drones could be used by retailers, by restaurateurs to deliver lunch and dinner orders and for package delivery by shipping companies. At present, drones are even being used for search and rescue operations (although the restriction on operating them at night is a hurdle) and the inspection of oil and gas lines.
For agriculture, drones can be a cost-effective solution for farmers. An aerial view of the cultivation can show everything from irrigation issues, soil variation and even pest and fungal infestations that can't be spotted at eye level. Drones can conduct surveys at any pre-determined interval, be it every hour or every week. And the savings involved in using a drone rather than a regular crop plane are significant.
According to a recent report in the Washington Post, it is expected that by the time the FAA finalizes its regulations (a process that could extend till 2017); more than 7,000 businesses in the US will be applying for permits to operate drones. However, regulators are still expressing concerns over safety and security.
These concerns are frustrating businesses who claim that the existing technology is very safe to use in small commercial settings. This includes geo-fencing technology that contains the drone within a specified three-dimensional area, autonomous systems that equip the drone to "think" for itself in the event of it losing its GPS signal or contact with its operator, and highly sophisticated sensors that let the vehicle reroute if there are obstacles in its path.
For now, those praising the use of drones and seeing them as an eventual replacement for humans when it comes to doing dangerous jobs (In Switzerland, drones are used to search for avalanche survivors) are equal in number to those who are voicing concerns over nuisance value, privacy and of course, safety. But, even with all the concerns, the real question really is when and not if drones will be a part of our daily lives.