Look, up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, its sup…nope it’s a squadron of drones in a “Finger-four” formation delivering prescription medications to your neighborhood. We are on the precipice of major drone utilization in the United States, commonly known as UAS (unmanned aircraft systems).
Expansion & Utilization
Over the past several years we’ve seen an increase in personal drone usage. You may have a neighbor that flies them for fun, your favorite youtuber incorporating them into their videos, and new businesses popping up offering drone photography.
The wide spread adoption of drones led the FAA to create a drone certificate program. This was to adopt safety standards and educate new-pilots on different airspace, how to operate around airports, weather planning, and maintenance procedures.
For years we’ve heard about Amazon testing drone delivery programs. UPS has recently started testing package delivery. CVS and UPS announced just this week they will begin delivery of prescription drugs. This was in response to FedEx and Walgreens teaming up to do the same with a test program in Christiansburg, Virginia.
I also learned the US Postal Service is now soliciting experts to begin their own testing procedures similar to what UPS is currently doing.
It takes a Village
The adoption of drones goes beyond just the drone hardware itself. There is an entire ecosystem that allows these devices to function autonomously depending on the mission at hand.
This includes skillsets in big data, artificial intelligence, software development, robotics, network infrastructure, cybersecurity, and advanced videography to just name a few.
Virginia is one of the leaders in the advancement of UAS. The Center for Innovative Technology runs their own Unmanned Systems Center . They work with leading universities and policy makers to help innovate and cultivate business opportunities within Virginia.
The applications of UAS are numerous and growing. You’ve probably seen military utilization of drones on the news and as mentioned package delivery. But UAS can assist first responders, agriculture and forestry, workplace safety, and public transportation (think bridge inspection, accident monitoring). I even know home inspectors to utilize drones to check out rooflines to avoid crawling on them.
The advantages of an advanced drone program are numerous for specific industry sectors. For first responders, sending in a drone is clearly a safer alternative to sending a person in mountainous regions or other hazardous situations (fire, chemical).
Drones are also a cheaper alternative to traditional pilot programs as well. The commercial industry drones are typically much smaller, run on batteries, and of course there is not a traditional pilot to pay in the cockpit.
Drones can also be a faster solution to acquire critical data for large infrastructure projects such as building highways or high-rise towers. I imagine in some of these cases the mere invention of drones was not only a faster solution for data, but also provided project managers with new in-sights that they weren’t even aware of before because of the new perspective.
Of course, there are disadvantages with any emerging technology. Drones are more susceptible to bad weather. The weather threshold gets narrower the smaller and less powerful the engines are on the UAS.
The battery life on drones are still relatively short. Many of the consumer products you can buy off the shelf have roughly a 20-40-minute run time if you are lucky. Many of the larger drone programs are aiming for 8 hour run times, but I am not sure if the technology is there yet. Another variable that affects flight time is the payload that a drone can carry as well (primarily weight).
I’m a little biased
I am excited about what the future of drones will bring to the overall economy. I don’t know how close we are to having fleets of them buzzing the sky all around us. But as someone who has worked in the technology field for 20 years and earned my private pilot certificate, I love seeing the two industries intersect in innovative ways.