Drones take to the skies

Frank Palermo,

EVP & Head of Technology, 
Media & Telecommunications, 
Americas (East Coast)

Published: February 1, 2018

Look, it's a bird. No, it's a plane. Actually, it's just your neighborhood drone. In coming years, you can expect the skies to get just a little bit busier as buzzing devices increasingly fill the air above our heads.

Almost 3,000 businesses, universities, nonprofits, and research groups in the United States are authorized to fly drones. There are an additional 400,000 hobbyist drone users who registered their craft with the FAA and are flying for purely recreational purposes.

Analysts are predicting that demand will skyrocket. The commercial drone market could increase from around $5.2 billion last year to $27.1 billion by 2021, according to Wintergreen Research, a U.S.-based firm that studies different technology sectors.

There could be 7 million small drones in the sky by 2020, according to the U.S. aviation officials, who believe that as many as 2.7 million (or over one-third) of them will be used for commercial purposes.

Cleared for take-off!

In 2016, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), issued new rules that expanded the uses of drones in commercial applications. These new regulations work to harness new innovations safely, to spur job growth, advance critical scientific research, and save lives.

According to industry estimates, the new rules could generate more than $82 billion for the U.S. economy and create more than 100,000 new jobs over the next 10 years.

Previously, any for-profit entity flying a drone, from real estate agents to farmers to photographers, had to obtain a pilot's license. The updated rules, referred to as 'Part 107' replaces that license with a knowledge test and certificate specific to flying a drone, allowing companies a much cheaper, faster, and simpler path to getting in the air.

The FAA Part 107 is historic in that it proclaims that drones can be safely integrated into the national airspace. It paves the way for wider adoption of drones for all sorts of non-recreational uses which could bring real benefits to America.

While the new rules will enable faster adoption, there are also safeguards in place such as commercial drones may only fly during daylight, must stay below 400 ft., and can weigh no more than 55 pounds. The new rules also establish a top speed of 100 miles per hour. Small drones will now be allowed to fly in sparsely populated areas without FAA approval, but must still work with air traffic control if they are planning to fly a mission over crowded airspace or above heavily populated areas.

Your packages are flying by

Drones have been on people's mind since Amazon chief Jeff Bezos unveiled their plans on '60 Minutes' back in 2013. While an interim step of launching Amazon Prime Air is pending drone safety testing to be conducted, drones remain central to their future. In the future, drones could be combined with warehouses manned by robots and trucks that drive themselves to unlock a new autonomous future for Amazon.

Amazon is not alone. Transportation giant like UPS has been working with drone-maker CyPhy Works to make seamless commercial deliveries of packages to remote or difficult to access locations. UPS completed a drone delivery in which a flying robot delivered an asthma inhaler to a children's summer camp on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. The programmed flight path for the drone let it fly autonomously for 3 miles from the city of Beverly, roughly 25 miles outside of Boston, to the summer camp on Children's Island, taking the drone roughly 8 minutes to complete.

DHL has been focused on drone delivery long before Amazon. The German shipping company started experimenting with drones in 2013 and is making steady strides, now with the third generation of its 'Parcelcopter,' which does in eight minutes what it would take a standard mail-delivery vehicle about a half hour to complete. It started by sending small parcels across the Rhine on a quadcopter and then delivering medical supplies to a North Sea Island in 2014. Now DHL has built a carbon fiber tilt-rotor drone that takes off like a helicopter and flies like a plane. It's got a six-foot wingspan, a payload of 4.5 pounds and max speed of 80 mph.

Eyes in the Sky

Energy companies are quickly realizing that it's a lot safer to use 'remotely operated aerial vehicles' (ROAVs) or 'drones' to examine unsafe areas.

Shell is increasingly using drones to inspect the condition of its oil and gas facilities in hard to reach places, like a tall tower or the underbelly of an offshore oil rig, because it's safer and more efficient than sending people. The drones are equipped with an array of cameras and sensors to quickly and thoroughly examine parts of facilities where engineers would need to erect scaffolding or other equipments to reach.

New York energy provider Con Edison is using drones equipped with cameras and thermal systems for inspections at one of its steam plants on the East Side of Manhattan. Workers typically have to go through confined-space training and to build tall scaffolding to check a plant's boilers. Con Edison's round, 1.1-pound carbon fiber machines can simply fly all over the place, capturing videos and photos.

As part of their Offering Rail Better Information Services (ORBIS) program, UK railway provider, Network Rail, is using drones to capture detailed photographs in 3D and cross-sections so employees can pull up a map of the network and complete with minute details. This will improve track maintenance and boost field worker efficiency while reducing the amount of work at height required on Network Rail's assets.

Calling all Drones

The idea that drones can operate safely and more securely on commercial 4G LTE networks is being explored by AT&T's subsidiary Qualcomm. The team will look at coverage, signal, strength, and mobility across network cells and how they function in flight. Wireless technology can bring many advantages to drones such as ubiquitous coverage, high-speed mobile support, robust security, high reliability, and quality of service.

As drones begin to monopolize the skies, there needs to be a way for those flying devices to connect to a network. Keeping track of drones so they don't crash or harm people is critical to their future. Having network connections also makes it easier to transmit data, photography, etc. back to data centers.

Drone fever: the future of human augmentation.

Drones will be the future of human augmentation. Drones offer inexpensive, safe alternatives to helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft for mapping, photography, and imaging. Drones will continue to mature in 2017 as new sensors that are being developed are able to literally keep human beings from having to deal with or even enter dangerous environments.

So as we enter 2017, you can not only expect the skies to be buzzing with drones but even more of a buzz on the ground about them than ever before.

Frank Palermo

EVP & Head of Technology, 
Media & Telecommunications, 
Americas (East Coast)

Frank Palermo has over 20 years of global experience as a successful technology executive, with broad-based skills including business consulting, strategy, technology, and development, financial and operational management. Frank excels at cultivating an entrepreneurial culture, assembling high performance teams, identifying emerging technology trends, and incubating innovative, high growth businesses. Frank is passionate about helping companies re-imagine their digital future through the application of technology. He frequently collaborates with organizations on ways to accelerate their innovation roadmap.

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