August 31, 2017

The tiny aircraft next to you peels off from the unlikely formation you’ve been flying in as it dramatically descends to complete its delivery of groceries, or blood, or maybe diapers. Inside the autonomous ride-sharing drone you’re sitting in, you mumble slightly as it announces it’s been routed to pick up another passenger.

As it pulls into the 80th-story drone port, you regret having forgot your noise cancelling ear buds — this person seems like they are going to be chatty. Luckily, it’s only going to be 11 minutes en route to your destination, despite being 20 miles away. You gesture optimistically in front of yourself to make it look like you’re browsing your holographic social feed.

It’s tempting to let your imagination run wild with the future of drones. But where will the drone industry really be in three years?

The thought of human-carrying drones and swarms of autonomous fleets clouding our skies paints a vivid picture of the future — but while that future is possible, it’s not plausible or practical just yet.

I like to compare today’s drones to the concept of flying cars from the 60s. It was possible to extrapolate flying cars from the technology of the day, but it was a few steps removed from reality. And so it is with drones. Both in terms of technology and adoption, there are many thresholds we still must cross before living out our science fiction daydreams.

This isn’t to say that drone technology is progressing slowly. On the contrary, the next three years will bring more exciting revelations than most consumers expect. They just won’t be the revelations people have in mind.

“Soon, every company, government agency, and household will use drones on a daily basis. But what are they going to be used for? And by who?”

Drones Will Be Ubiquitous

For the time being, semi-automated drones will be the most common. Within the next three years, technology will enable ordinary employees to operate drones, instead of relying on dedicated pilots. As drone piloting transitions from a niche specialty to an everyday skill such as driving a car, companies will find it easier to justify the investment in fleets. Cheaper upkeep — including the labor cost of hiring pilots and other specialists — will make for widespread adoption.

Despite the imminent ubiquity of drones, we’re not likely to see full automation within the next three years. And even if we do, it won’t be mature enough for trustworthy commercial applications. Consider how many millions of test miles auto manufacturers expend before introducing driving assist features. With that in mind, drones won’t perform ultra high-precision tasks any time soon. They’re more likely to be used for the mundane: package delivery, inspections, security. Drones will be everywhere, but they won’t solve brand new use cases just yet.

The First Wave: Direct Impact

I expect drone development will progress in much the same way as the internet. If you think back, the web as we know it wasn’t born in three years, or even in a decade. There were several waves of changes that spanned the early 1980s to the present day.

The first industries to change will be those directly impacted by the new technology. For the web, retailers were one of the first segments to embrace the emerging tech. E-commerce was a natural extension of brick-and-mortar commerce. The web democratized commerce, allowing small retailers to compete with brick-and-mortar giants for the first time.

For drones, the equivalent industry might be TV news. Companies like CNN already use drones in their final product, so their path to adoption is clear. The next three years will bring us advancements in video driven by an active involvement from news networks. As the technology progresses, you’ll see drones farther and farther from roles that don’t contribute to the “profit column” of the balance sheet.

The Second Wave: Increased Efficiency

Industries that can’t leverage drones for their final product are less likely to be early adopters, but they won’t stay drone-free forever. The second wave of adoption will be the companies that can cut costs by embracing new technologies.

For the internet, the second wave of adoption included manufacturing companies and large brick-and-mortar retailers. These companies still did most of their business offline, but they used the web to manage their inventories. Technology was only visible behind the scenes, but even a small operational tweak can result in significant savings if the company’s scale is large enough.

Insurance companies will start using drones in much the same way. Drones don’t affect the insurance that they sell, but they do affect the way these companies collect data. Painstakingly measuring a roof structure before insuring it is an important logistical task that takes up time and energy. If embracing drones will let these companies save money, they will happily do it once the technology is available and proven.

The Third Wave: New Use Cases

The final wave of adoption is the most exciting. This is where consumers’ minds usually go when they imagine the potential of drones. Once the technology is mature and usage is widespread, brand new use cases become feasible. It may take many years to reach this point, but once we do, drones will change society in ways we haven’t yet predicted.

The mobile revolution wasn’t possible until faster internet speeds met the improved computing power of our phones and tablets. Once that happened, apps began solving problems we didn’t know we had. Ridesharing and social media were not established industries until about a decade ago. Today, both categories encompass large companies and a wide variety of smaller apps.

It’s hard for us to imagine what this stage of adoption will look like for drones. All I can say for sure is that it’s coming.

Where Will Drones Be In Three Years?

If yesterday’s technology is any indication, drones will meet (and exceed) expectations. But it won’t happen right away.

In the next three years, we’ll be well on our way through the first wave of adoption, perhaps even touching on the second. We won’t create new industries just yet, but we’ll see widespread adoption across the industrial and consumer spaces. There’s plenty to look forward to — once our expectations are able to separate fiction from feasibility..

About the Author
Jon Hegranes is the CEO & Co-Founder of Kittyhawk unifies the mission, aircraft and data to power commercial drone operations from one person to thousands of people. Kittyhawk customers span insurance, law enforcement, inspection, construction, energy, media and entertainment industries. Kittyhawk’s pilot-first philosophy evangelizes safe and responsible operations. The company is a proud founding member of the FAA’s UAS Safety Team. Jon holds a Remote Pilot Certificate under FAA Part 107. He graduated from TCU with a major in business and earned his MBA from Thunderbird Global School of Management. He is a self-taught iOS developer and regularly speaks and writes about the commercial drone industry.