In recent years, a host of Hollywood blockbusters — including “The Fast and the Furious 7,” “Jurassic World,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” — have included aerial tracking shots provided by drone helicopters outfitted with cameras.

Those shots required separate operators for the drones and the cameras, and careful planning to avoid collisions. But a team of researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and ETH Zurich hope to make drone cinematography more accessible, simple, and reliable.

Beyond Vision Aerial projects the consumer drone market to be worth ten billion euros by 2020, with the average drone costing six hundred euros and packing a range of features from high-definition cameras to built-in GPS.

At the International Conference on Robotics and Automation later this month, the researchers will present a system that allows a director to specify a shot’s framing — which figures or faces appear where, at what distance. Then, on the fly, it generates control signals for a camera-equipped autonomous drone, which preserve that framing as the actors move.

As long as the drone’s information about its environment is accurate, the system also guarantees that it won’t collide with either stationary or moving obstacles.

“There are other efforts to do autonomous filming with one drone,” says Daniela Rus, an Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT and a senior author on the new paper. “They can follow someone, but if the subject turns, say 180 degrees, the drone will end up showing the back of the subject. With our solution, if the subject turns 180 degrees, our drones are able to circle around and keep focus on the face. We are able to specify richer higher-level constraints for the drones. The drones then map the high-level specifications into control and we end up with greater levels of interaction between the drones and the subjects.”

Joining Rus on the paper are Javier Alonso-Mora, who was a postdoc in her group when the work was done and is now an assistant professor of robotics at the Delft University of Technology; Tobias Nägeli, a graduate student at ETH Zurich and his advisor Otmar Hilliges, an assistant professor of computer science; and Alexander Domahidi, CTO of Embotech, an autonomous-systems company that spun out of ETH.




In the picture

With the new system, the user can specify how much of the screen a face or figure should occupy, what part of the screen it should occupy, and what the subject’s orientation toward the camera should be — straight on, profile, three-quarter view from either side, or over the shoulder. Those parameters can be set separately for any number of subjects; in tests at MIT, the researchers used compositions involving up to three subjects.

Usually, the maintenance of the framing will be approximate. Unless the actors are extremely well-choreographed, the distances between them, the orientations of their bodies, and their distance from obstacles will vary, making it impossible to meet all constraints simultaneously. But the user can specify how the different factors should be weighed against each other. Preserving the actors’ relative locations onscreen, for instance, might be more important than maintaining a precise distance, or vice versa. The user can also assign a weight to minimize occlusion, ensuring that one actor doesn’t end up blocking another from the camera.

The key to the system, Alonso-Mora explains, is that it continuously estimates the velocities of all of the moving objects in the drone’s environment and projects their locations a second or two into the future. This buys it a little time to compute optimal flight trajectories and also ensures that it can get recover smoothly if the drone needs to take evasive action to avoid collision.

The system updates its position projections about 50 times a second. Usually, the updates will have little effect on the drone’s trajectory, but the frequent updates ensure that the system can handle sudden changes of velocity.

The researchers tested the system at CSAIL’s motion-capture studio, using a quadrotor (four-propeller) drone. The motion-capture system provided highly accurate position data about the subjects, the studio walls, and the drone itself.

In one set of experiments, the subjects actively tried to collide with the drone, marching briskly toward it as it attempted to keep them framed within the shot. In all such cases, it avoided collision and immediately tried to resume the prescribed framing.

Reality capture — the process of digitizing the physical world by scanning it inside and out, from the ground and the air — has finally matured into a technology that’s transforming business. You can see it in small ways in Google Maps, where data is captured by satellites, airplanes, and cars, and presented in both 2-D and 3-D. Now that kind of mapping, initially designed for humans, is done at much higher resolution in preparation for the self-driving car, which needs highly detailed 3-D maps of cities in order to efficiently navigate. The methods of creating such models of the real world are related to the technology of “motion capture,” which drives movies and video games today. Normally that requires bringing the production to the scanners — putting people in a large room outfitted for scanning and then creating the scene. But drones flip that, allowing us to bring the scanner to the scene. They’re just regular cameras (and some smart software) precisely revolving around objects to create photo-realistic digital models.

In some ways it’s astonishing that we’re using drones on construction sites and in movies. Ten years ago the technology was still in labs. Five years ago it was merely very expensive. Today you can buy a drone at Walmart that can do real enterprise work, using software in the cloud. Now that it’s so cheap and easy to put cameras in the sky, it’s becoming commercially useful. Beyond construction, drone data is used in agriculture (crop mapping), energy (solar and wind turbine monitoring), insurance (roof scanning), infrastructure (inspection), communications, and countless other industries that touch the physical world. We know that “you can manage only what you can measure,” but usually measuring the real world is hard. Drones make it much easier.

Industries have long sought data from above, generally through satellites or planes, but drones are better “sensors in the sky” than both. They gather higher-resolution and more-frequent data than satellites (whose view is obscured by clouds over two-thirds of the planet at any time), and they’re cheaper, easier, and safer than planes. Drones can provide “anytime, anywhere” access to overhead views with an accuracy that rivals laser scanning — and they’re just getting started. In this century’s project to extend the internet to the physical world, drones are the path to the third dimension — up. They are, in short, the “internet of flying things.”

You might think of drones as toys or flying cameras for the GoPro set, and that is still the lion’s share of the business. But like the smartphone and other examples of the “commercialization of enterprise” before them, drones are now being outfitted with business-grade software and becoming serious data-collection platforms — hardware as open and extensible as a smartphone, with virtually limitless app potential. As in any app economy, surprising and ingenious uses will emerge that we haven’t even thought of yet; and predictable and powerful apps will improve over time.
The peripatetic nature of drones isn’t so different from the nature of Chris Anderson’s career. Both move hither and thither with ease, accomplishing much along their respective paths. Anderson studied computational physics, played in a band called REM (sadly, not the REM), worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and eventually landed at two august publications: Nature and Science. While editor in chief during the rise of Wired magazine, he wrote several best-selling and influential books: The Long Tail; Free; and, most recently, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. Along the way he founded several companies (now “lost to the mists of time,” he says) and won too many influential thinker awards to list here.
Anderson’s first encounter with drones came after he tried to get his kids interested in robots (which they found slow and boring) and remote-controlled planes (which crashed into trees). He thought, What if the robot could fly? It would be more fun, and it couldn’t be a worse pilot than me. So, as he told one reporter, “I literally googled ‘flying robot’ and got to ‘drone’ and googled ‘drone’ to get to ‘autopilot.’”
In no time he and his son had built a crude autopilot, largely out of Lego Mindstorms components. He hasn’t looked back. The founder of several robotics communities, including DIY Drones and DIY Robocars, Anderson is also CEO of 3DR, a drone company. 3DR built a drone to take on hardware market leader DJI but found it too hard to compete in a market where prices were falling by 70% a year. So Anderson shifted focus to the platform—the software that will allow drones to take on more work and find ever more ingenious solutions to enterprise challenges. 3DR works heavily in the construction industry, creating systems for efficiently and continuously surveying large-scale sites and feeding that data into systems for analysis.
Anderson believes that we’re in the first minutes of a massive transformation with drones and other ways to extend sensors into the world. The key breakthrough, he argues, comes when you stop thinking about the hardware as the product and start thinking about the data drones can collect as the product. “We are in the process of measuring the planet at unprecedented resolution in both time and space,” he says. “The next step will be to figure out how to use all that data to manage it.”

Or you might think of drones as delivery vehicles, since that’s the application — consumer delivery — that the media grabs on to most ferociously when seeking click-generating amazing/scary visions of the future. Frankly, delivery is one of the least compelling, most complicated applications for drones (anything that involves autonomously flying in crowded environments is the black-diamond slope of technology and regulation). Most of the industry is focused on the other side of the continuum: on data, not delivery — commercial use over privately owned land, where the usual concerns about privacy, annoyance, and scary robots overhead are minimized.

Drone economics are classically disruptive. Already drones can accomplish in hours tasks that take people days. They can provide deeply detailed visual data for a tiny fraction of the cost of acquiring the same data by other means. They’re becoming crucial in workplace safety, removing people from precarious processes such as cell-tower inspection. And they offer, literally, a new view into business: Their low-overhead perspective is bringing new insights and capabilities to fields and factories alike.

Like any robot, a drone can be autonomous, which means breaking the link between pilot and aircraft. Regulations today require that drones have an “operator” on the ground (even if the operation is just pushing a button on a smartphone and idly watching as the drone does its work). But as drones are getting smarter, regulators are starting to consider flights beyond “visual line of sight” — ones in which onboard sensors and machine vision will more than compensate for the eyes of a human on the ground far away. Once such fully autonomous use is allowed, the historic “one pilot/one aircraft” calculus can become “one operator/many vehicles” or even “no operator/many vehicles.” That’s where the real economic potential of autonomy will kick in: When the marginal cost of scanning the world approaches zero (because robots, not people, are doing the work), we’ll do a lot more of it. Call this the “democratization of earth observation”: a low-cost, high-resolution alternative to satellites. Anytime, anywhere access to the skies.

The construction industry is the world’s second largest (after agriculture), worth $8 trillion a year. But it’s remarkably inefficient. The typical commercial construction project runs 80% over budget and 20 months behind schedule, according to McKinsey.

On-screen, in the architect’s CAD file, everything looks perfect. But on-site, in the mud and dust, things are different. And the difference between concept and reality is where about $3 trillion of that $8 trillion gets lost, in a cascade of change orders, rework, and schedule slips.

Drones are meant to close that gap. The one buzzing outside my window, taking passes at the site, is capturing images with a high-performance camera mounted on a precision gimbal. It’s taking regular photos (albeit at very high resolution), which are sent to the cloud and, using photogrammetry techniques to derive geometries from visual data, are turned into photo-realistic 2-D and 3-D models. (Google does the same thing in Google Maps, at lower resolution and with data that might be two or three years old. To see this, switch to Google Earth view and click on the “3-D” button.) In the construction site trailer, the drone’s data shows up by mid-morning as an overhead view of the site, which can be zoomed in for detail the size of a U.S. quarter or rotated at any angle, like a video game or virtual reality scene. Superimposed on the scans are the CAD files used to guide the construction — an “as designed” view overlaid on an “as built” view. It’s like an augmented reality lens into what should be versus what is, and the difference between the two can be worth thousands of dollars a day in cost savings on each site — billions across the industry. So the site superintendent monitors progress daily.

Mistakes, changes, and surprises are unavoidable whenever idealized designs meet the real world. But they can be minimized by spotting clashes early enough to fix them, work around them, or at least update the CAD model to reflect changes for future work. There are lots of ways to measure a construction site, ranging from tape measures and clipboards to lasers, high-precision GPS, and even X-rays. But they all cost money and take time, so they’re not used often, at least not over the entire site. With drones, a whole site can be mapped daily, in high detail, for as little as $25 a day.

The ascent of the drone economy is a steep one. Ten years ago unmanned aerial vehicles were military technology, costing millions of dollars and cloaked in secrecy. But then came the smartphone, bringing with it a suite of component technologies, from sensors and fast processors to cameras, broadband wireless, and GPS. All those chips enabled the remarkable supercomputer in your pocket, but the economies of scale of smartphone production also made them cheap and available for other uses. The first step was to transform adjacent industries, including robotics. I call this proliferation of components “the peace dividend of the smartphone wars.”

Companies including my own came out of this moment. Cheap high-powered components and a maker’s attitude allowed enthusiasts and entrepreneurs to reimagine drones not as coming down from higher in the sky but as rising from the ground. Rather than seeing “airplanes without pilots,” we saw “smartphones with propellers.” Moving at the pace of the smartphone industry, not the aerospace industry, drones went from hackers’ devices to hobbyists’ instruments to toys costing less than $100 at your local big-box store in less than four years — perhaps the fastest transfer of technology from CIA to Costco in history. Five years ago the main commercial objection to the word “drone” was that it had military connotations. Now it’s that people think of the aircraft as playthings. Has any word changed its meaning from “weapon” to “toy” faster?

And it doesn’t end there. Wave one was technology, wave two was toys, and now comes the third and most important wave. Drones are becoming tools. The market for people who want flying selfie cameras may be limited, but the market for data about the physical world is as big as the world itself.

Drones are starting to fill the “missing middle” between satellites and street level, digitizing the planet in high resolution and near–real time at a tiny fraction of the cost of alternatives.

The trajectory of this third wave — drones as tools — is more dramatic than that of the two preceding waves. First drones will populate the skies in increasing numbers as regulations and technology allow safer use. Estimates vary widely; some data predicts that by next year more than 100,000 operators will be managing 200,000 drones that will fill the sky, doing some work or another.

Next, the market for drone apps will explode as more and more people find ingenious uses. Drones will remain primarily data-collection vehicles, but the breadth of apps for them is only just beginning to be discovered. For example, drones have already been used for search and rescue and for wildlife monitoring. They can provide wireless internet access (something Facebook is investing in) and deliver medicine in the developing world. And they can not only map crops but also spray them with pesticides or deposit new seeds and beneficial insects.

Then, drones will gain even greater cost advantages when they don’t just remove the pilot from the cockpit but remove the pilot entirely. The true breakthrough will come with autonomy.
Autonomous, Small, and Countless

Technology to allow drones to fly themselves exists and is improving quickly, going from simple GPS guidance to true visual navigation — the way a human would fly. Take humans out of the loop, and suddenly aircraft look more like the birds that inspired them: autonomous, small, and countless; born for the air and able to navigate it tirelessly and effortlessly. We are as yet tourists in the air, briefly visiting it at great cost. By breaking the link between man and machine, we can occupy the skies. The third dimension is the last frontier on Earth to be properly colonized (yes, both up to the skies and down under the seas, but we’ll leave the latter to our aquatic-drone cousins). Colonize it we will, but as with space and the ocean depths, we’ll use robots, not humans.

Why now? A combination of three trends. First, the price/performance bounty of the smartphone tech we talked about earlier made drones cheap and good. For example, the gyroscopic and other sensors packed into a tiny $3 chip in your phone were just a decade ago mechanical devices costing as much as $100,000 and mounted in enclosures ranging in size from lunch boxes to dorm fridges.

Second, the ability to make cheap and good drones put them within the reach of regular consumers (willing to spend up to $1,000) who had a real use case (aerial video and photography). As a result, companies had to make them easy to use — just swipe and fly — to drive adoption. Drones had to become more sophisticated as users became less sophisticated.

Third, once the consumer drone boom unexpectedly put more than a million drones — ranging from small toys to high-end “prosumer” models — into the skies over America in less than four years under a “recreational use” exemption to the FAA’s strict rules about flying things, the regulators had to respond. To steer the market toward safer use without inhibiting it, the agency accelerated rules that would allow drones to be used commercially without the need for pilots’ licenses or special waivers. The new rules took effect in August 2016, essentially kicking off the commercial drone era.
To this point we’ve focused mostly on drones themselves — the hardware, its cost and capabilities, and what we can attach to it to get work done. But when setting a drone strategy, it’s important to think less about drones and more about apps. The hardware is primarily an empty vessel to fill with work to be done: taking photographs and video, scanning, moving objects, enabling communication.

And collecting data. More than anything, drones are collection vehicles. Their ability to amass data from a unique, valuable perspective (above, but not too far above) fast and at low cost makes them ideal collectors. Any drone strategy has to go beyond the drone to the data. And that means moving innovation to the cloud.
The biggest change in drones (and in robotics — indeed, in electronics broadly) over the past decade is the assumption of connectivity. Unlike earlier generations of robots, which required bespoke communications systems, the robots that have come out of the smartphone industry inherited their “born connected” architecture.

Already it’s hard to remember how things used to work: Amass data, then download it, then analyze it. No more. Data flows from source to device to analysis automatically and invisibly. Increasingly, it does what technology should always do: just work.

The devices tend to get better over time, not worse. Unlike in the old stand-alone model, in which products start their march to obsolescence the moment they are made, connected devices get most of their features from their software, not their hardware, and that software can be updated, just like the software on your smartphone. Think of a Tesla, which gets new features automatically on an almost weekly basis. The technical term for such devices is “exotropic,” and they tend to rise in value over time — unlike “entropic” devices, whose value tends to decline. Of course, the hardware has limits, and eventually even connected devices become obsolete. But the point is that rather than follow the traditional long decay slope from the point of purchase, connected devices improve in utility for as long as they can. In the case of drones, new abilities, from improved performance to new autonomous features, just appear overnight via “over the air” upgrades.

They have outboard intelligence. They’re part of the internet of things — not the silly part, like connected lightbulbs, but the clever part (which, being clever, usually avoids the buzzwordy internet-of-things label). For example, Amazon Echo has enough intelligence in the box to harness immense intelligence in the cloud. It’s not just a sensor for the internet but also a limb by which the internet can project into the physical world. For a drone, this means that it doesn’t have to be programmed to scan a site using a standard path. Instead, it starts by taking a few pictures of the site, and then it uploads them to the cloud so that algorithms there can analyze them in real time and prepare a custom scan path that’s just right for that site, on that day, with that lighting and those shadows. Think of this as the data determining the mission, not the mission determining the data.

They make the internet smarter too. Connected devices don’t just get intelligence from the network; they feed data back to it. The current AI renaissance is due less to improved computation and algorithms than to the ability simply to access vastly more data. Much of that data, today and tomorrow, comes from measuring the world — both people and their environments — and connected devices are how the sensors spread. In the case of drones, this means they can not only download up-to-date 3-D maps of their world to help them navigate but also potentially upload data to make those maps better.

Where all this really kicks in is the enterprise. There, nobody is using a drone because it’s cool. They’re using it because it does a job better than the alternative. All that matters is the job, and every step that stands between wanting the job done and having it done is friction that inhibits adoption. The perfect enterprise drone is a box with a red button. When you push the button, you get your data. Anything more complicated is a pain point to be eliminated. (And after that, we’ll get rid of the button, too.) What that means is seamless integration between drones and enterprise software, such that all the data is automatically collected, sent to the cloud, analyzed, and displayed in useful form, ideally in near–real time.

What will this look like? Although it might surprise you, the future of drones is boring. The sign of a successful technology is not that it thrills but that it becomes essential and accepted, fading into the wallpaper of modernity. Electricity was once a magic trick, but now it is assumed. The internet is going the same way. The end goal is for drones to be thought of as just another unsexy industrial tool, like agricultural machinery or generators on construction sites — as obviously useful as they are unremarkable.

Companies have only scratched the surface of what airborne drones can do. Over the next two decades, businesses will put industrial drones to work monitoring facilities, tracking shipments, and, perhaps even delivering groceries to your doorstep. Beyond Vision Aerial estimates that by 2050, the industrial drone fleet in Europe and the US will comprise more than two million units and generate $100 billion per year in product and service revenues.

Beyond Vision Aerial notes that services that operate drones and manage drone data for end-user companies, rather than drone manufacturing, will generate most of the value because most end-user companies will turn over actual operation and maintenance of drones to third-party services. And the data that drones capture will create value for end users by helping identify new operating efficiencies. In some industries, drones will enable new business models and business opportunities. In agriculture, for example, next-generation drones could fly over fields, analyze conditions, and identify spots where more fertilizer might be needed to raise crop yields. DHL, Amazon, and Google are among the companies that are developing drones to automate deliveries. Insurers will sell drone coverage and are considering the use of drones for inspecting damage from storms and natural disasters. Telecom companies may sell drone data communications services for guiding drones and relaying the data that they collect.

Today, nobody can anticipate the full range of industrial drone applications. Some are obvious: sending a drone rather than a human to inspect the machinery atop an offshore oil rig, for example. But in many industries, companies have yet to discover specific applications for drones. Companies can start by thinking about the kinds of data that could be captured more efficiently with drones than with current methods and how they could use that data. Then they can determine how much drone expertise they will need to reap the business benefits that they identify. Now is the time for companies to learn about drone capabilities and start building drone strategies.

Around the world, hobbyists and military forces have been using airborne drones for years. Now, drones are poised to become common in all sorts of businesses. Compact drones with cameras are being deployed to inspect oil rigs, monitor agricultural fields and mines, and check on telecom towers. Next-generation industrial drones will be dispatched to fly beyond the visual line of sight so that they can scan hundreds of miles of pipeline, deliver packages, or support search-and-rescue operations. Eventually, full-size pilot-optional cargo and passenger planes could join the airborne-drone fleet, which has important implications for aerospace companies that are planning next-generation products.

Beyond Vision Aerial sees the use of industrial drones unfolding in three waves. The first, currently underway, involves line-of-sight applications in which an operator guides a drone and maintains visual contact. The second, ramping up within 5 years, will introduce remote applications, such as observation of ocean-going ships. The third wave, which could be up to 25 years away, would introduce full-size pilot-optional aircraft.

Industrial drones are most often used to inspect production sites and equipment, helping measure performance and avoid breakdowns. These drones are restricted to very low-level airspace—typically, up to 500 feet—and require human operators to watch and guide them. Oil and gas producers use drones to inspect offshore platforms and refineries, offloading a dangerous job from humans. In mining, drones are involved on a daily basis, for example, monitoring stockpiles, and in farming, drones are producing detailed maps that make it easier to manage fields. Telecom carriers use drones to inspect transmission towers, and in media and entertainment, drones are getting breathtaking shots that were almost impossible to capture in the past.

Today, most countries, including the US, permit only line-of-sight operation. But we anticipate that in the next few years, increasing numbers of jurisdictions will permit drone flights that go beyond that limit, creating demand for larger, more sophisticated craft. Once the technology is proved safe, we expect that regulators will allow remote operation, making it possible for drones to inspect hundreds of miles of power lines and deliver mail and parcels. However, we estimate that drone parcel delivery will remain relatively limited, accounting for just 1% of package deliveries.

The final frontier of airborne drones—pilot-optional planes—is still a ways off. But aerospace companies and aviation agencies are already thinking about how these drones could work. This planning—two decades in advance—reflects both the long product cycles of the aerospace industry and the magnitude of the challenges. For example, pilot-optional planes would need totally reliable long-distance wireless data communications. We expect that the evolution of self-driving cars and trucks will help refine needed technologies and pave the way for consumer acceptance.

As drone adoption accelerates, the value will quickly shift from drone makers to the providers of drone-related services. The shift will include drone operators that outsource drone work for companies and companies that can analyze the big data flows from drones. (See Exhibit 2.) It will also include telecom carriers: even as drones grow in sophistication and capabilities, we expect that most of them will remain low-flying craft, which means that they will likely rely on mobile-phone networks for communications, expanding demand for cellular service. There will also be opportunities for software developers, for example, to create user interfaces and operating systems for drone flight control. Systems integrators will have opportunities to help companies bring drone data into IT systems.

Industrial drones will create employment opportunities, too. Initially, there will be demand for drone operators to work for drone services or directly for drone users. But these jobs will become less necessary as drones become more autonomous. There will be steady demand for drone maintenance workers, and the growing prevalence of drones could contribute to employment in insurance, IT consulting, and other businesses that serve the drone industry and drone users. A recent report by the European Union’s Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) initiative describes employment opportunities and other economic effects of industrial drones, as well as the various regulatory and technical challenges that are associated with the evolution of drone use.

In many industries, companies can use drones to reinvent processes and raise productivity. Drones, for example, fit into evolving digital models for managing mines and farms and the equipment used in the energy sector. In other industries, such as insurance, they may enable all-new operating models.

Drones will be used in conjunction with Internet of Things (IoT) sensors to manage mine operations digitally. Drones can provide data about the flow of trucks, ore, and supplies in and out of a mining site to optimize daily operations. They can also provide data for pit design decisions.

In farming, drones may complement or replace other technologies, such as IoT sensors. Today’s drones can be used for land surveys and other data-gathering activities. In the future, they may be used to support precision farming, which relies on data about conditions in different parts of the field to more precisely manage irrigation and pesticide use, for example. The goal is to increase crop yields, while reducing the use of costly inputs.

With their great potential to reduce risk and improve operations, drones can be used to automate inspection of offshore rigs and refineries, enabling preventive maintenance and avoiding costly interruptions due to equipment breakdowns. For utility companies, drones can not only provide better and more timely monitoring of transmission lines and solar fields, they can also be used to reduce theft.

The process of filing and approving claims is costly, time-consuming, and labor-intensive. Drones can help transform this process. They can be dispatched to make digital videos of the damage to homes and buildings after storms and of automobiles at crash sites, a procedure that police are testing to gather data for their reports. Such capabilities would not only cut claims-processing costs but would also accelerate customer service and generate additional underwriting data.

Since most drones will continue to be low-flying craft and therefore capable of communicating over cellular-phone networks, carriers may be able to sell data services to drone operators. Depending on the potential size of the market, it may even be worthwhile to invest in additional infrastructure and modify antennae to accommodate drone traffic.

There will be considerable opportunities for technology providers to tap drones as a new revenue source. Suppliers of cloud services, for example, may develop new lines of business for drone service providers and their customers. Drone services will need operating platforms for managing drones, and end users will need services for data management and analytics.

Drones, which will need to be insured, could provide a new market for carriers. Fully autonomous drones will provide a new underwriting challenge. Delivery drones could be a growth opportunity for retailers. Automated delivery might increase sales in certain categories, such as apparel, pharmaceuticals, and groceries.

Despite high-profile R&D projects such as Amazon Prime Air, DHL’s Parcelcopter, and Google’s Project Wing, many questions remain about automated package delivery. It is not clear that drones will be practical for last-mile delivery. It’s possible that they will be deployed for delivery to drop boxes or even just to help out in distribution centers. Or delivery could be reserved for premium or urgent-delivery service for consumers and businesses willing to pay for the ultimate in speed and convenience.

Aerospace will be the final frontier for drones. Aerospace manufacturers should continue to review their R&D pipelines to assess the implications of offering pilot-optional aircraft. They should also be working with airlines, freight carriers, and regulators to understand which applications will be wanted and permitted. Another consideration for companies is whether pilot-optional aircraft will be a part of their mainstream business or a standalone business that requires more fundamental changes in capabilities.

In addition to ascertaining the types of information that drones can collect, companies should identify the processes in which drones could do the job better or more efficiently than an employee or another technology. Understanding both the potential financial and the strategic payoffs from investments in drones will help companies determine whether they need in-house capabilities or can farm out drone activities. If drones are important to a company’s future, it may want to help boost the adoption of industrial drones by encouraging authorities to build flight control systems and supporting relevant safety regulations.

The march of the drones into industry is an exciting development. An industrial drone is a remarkable tool, combining IoT-like data-gathering capabilities with almost limitless mobility. Soon, drones will also be permitted to transport objects. We are just beginning to understand how companies can use this powerful combination of talents to function more efficiently and even to find entirely new ways of doing business. Today, companies should learn as much as they can to determine whether they need to be on the cutting edge of this emerging phenomenon.

It is early days in the drone-defense business. Security professionals both public and private worry about dangerous drones at military sites, airports, data centers, and public venues like baseball stadiums.  Jamming the radio signals to the drone does not always work. Drones differ from remote-controlled aircraft because they can fly to pre-set coordinates autonomously. The fastest drones can reach 150 miles per hour (240 km), too quick for human pilots flying another drone to catch.

Drone companies are now creating a very primitive brain of an insect, a dragonfly. It wakes up, sees the world and doesn’t really know where it is. But it has goals to capture the other drone, and it’s planning a path in the world and knows how to move through the world.

The interceptor must pack computing power and sophisticated software into that tiny drone brain. Unlike the emerging driverless car, it has to understand its environment without the benefit of an internet connection to a massive mapping database.

Currently, only law enforcement officials have the authority to interfere with another drone’s flight. Regulations also require a certified pilot to stand ready to intervene in any commercial drone flight and keep a line-of-sight view of the aircraft. 

The danger from hostile drones became more clear in the last few months when the U.S. military said Islamic State fighters were using them to attack Iraqi troops in the battle over Mosul. The Jihadis were using an array of consumer-style drones, including an agile quadcopter version for dropping explosives. At least 70 companies worldwide are working on various types of counter-drone systems. The swarm of drones is going to be a big threat.

James Bond-style diversions, or even forcing a drone down, are insufficient if a craft is hovering above a crowd with something dangerous, like an explosive or poison. In such a situation, capturing and carrying away the enemy drone is the best option, even if it is complex and expensive. Perfecting a drone hunting machine than can see and chase on its own is not as crazy as it may seem.

Australian authorities have relaxed drone regulations, allowing anyone to fly drones weighing up to 2kg without training, insurance, registration or certification. Elsewhere, millions of consumers can fly high-end devices – and so can drug traffickers, criminal gangs and insurgents.

Drones have been used to smuggle mobile phones, drugs, and weapons into prisons, in one case triggering a riot. One U.S. prison governor has converted a bookshelf into an impromptu display of drones his officers have confiscated.

Armed groups in Iraq, Ukraine, Syria, and Turkey are increasingly using off-the-shelf drones for reconnaissance or as improvised explosive devices. A booby-trapped drone launched by Jihadis killed two Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and wounded two French soldiers in October near Mosul. The use of drones by such groups is likely to spread. There’s an understanding that the threat can migrate beyond existing conflict zones.

Beyond Vision Aerial points out there is a feeding demand for increasingly advanced technology to bring down or disable unwanted drones. At one end of the scale, the Dutch national police recently bought several birds of prey from a start-up called Guard From Above to pluck unwanted drones from the sky.

Other approaches focus on netting drones, either via bigger drones or by guns firing a net and a parachute via compressed gas. Some, like Germany’s DeDrone, take a less intrusive approach by using a combination of sensors – camera, acoustic, Wi-Fi signal detectors and radio frequency (RF) scanners – to passively monitor drones within designated areas.

Newer start-ups, however, are focusing on cracking the radio wireless protocols used to control a drone’s direction and payload to then take it over and block its video transmission. Singapore’s TeleRadio Engineering uses RF signals in its SkyDroner device to track and control drones and a video feed to confirm targets visually.

Upscale hotels are talking to security companies about blocking drones from taking shots of their celebrity guests longing poolside or in the privacy of their bathrooms.

And even while the military may have the capability to bring down drones, demand is shifting to nimbler, more agile devices to cope with attacks using smaller off-the-shelf devices. The key is looking for systems that are scalable, lightweight and easily deployable. 

Beyond Vision Aerial leads the drone aerial videography. For more information, please refer to

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