Drones will take us to new heights. But they are leaving regulations down in the dust

Tyagarajan S March 7, 2017 11 min

Over the last couple of years, our skies have gotten just a tad busier with little mechanical birds of varying sizes and shapes. In 2017, around 3 million commercial and personal drones will be shipped (up from 2 million in 2016) and it will be a $6 billion market. It will also nearly double to $12 billion by 2020.

Despite a ban on their use, drones are proliferating across India (it is becoming more common by the day to see a drone hovering over you in an Indian wedding). The regulators have been lethargic in coming up with new, more comprehensive guidelines.

But before we talk about regulation, we need to talk about the drones themselves. We need to talk about how drones are way more than fancy floating cameras or flying toys. This week’s FactorFuture hovers over the subject of drones and why they may create a much bigger impact than most of us imagine.

A floating camera…and more

Let’s start with fun stuff. Drones are here to make selfies fancier. Several selfie-drones are in the works, including the Kickstarter-fueled AirSelfie, which claims to be the world’s smallest flying camera, and Selfly, which incredibly has more than $800,000 pledged for it. Snap Inc., Snapchat’s mother firm and a newly public company, is also rumoured to be working on a drone camera. It seems that the world really wants flying cameras.

Drones Selfly
SELFLY – A Kickstarter product which promises an autonomous flying phone case camera that’s 9mm thin and easily fits in the pocket.

Drones are also sport. FPV (First Person View) racing, where competitors speed little quad-copter drones, is fast picking pace in India. The Indian Drone Racing League held the country’s first drone racing event in IIT Gandhinagar on October 2016 and has already held 3 such events across the country.

But going beyond fun and games, commercial applications of drones are likely to create the bigger impact in the market. Delivery through drones is no longer just a PR stunt for Amazon or the other companies experimenting with it.

Amazon is experimenting with releasing packages from drones using parachutes. Alphabet too is said to be working on drone deliveries, although its attempts are shrouded in mystery. UPS is testing delivery drones that would get deployed from trucks (rolling warehouses), make the drop and come back. Mercedes Benz is exploring automated flying drones mounted on the roof of electric self-driving delivery vans. In the meantime, 7-eleven made 77 deliveries to a dozen customers from a single store.

Mercedes Benz Drones
“The Vision Van embodies the intelligent, clean and fully connected van of tomorrow – with electric powertrain, fully automatic cargo space, integrated delivery drones and innovative communication features,” explains Volker Mornhinweg, head of Mercedes-Benz Vans.

While these attempts to cover last-mile problems using drones seem like substantial efforts for small returns, the numbers do add up. UPS estimates that if every driver in its fleet covered 1 km less every day, it would end up saving $50 million every year. With the rapidly falling costs and rising capabilities of drones, it’s no longer a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ when it comes to deliveries (it may be some time away).

But beyond deliveries, the surveillance capabilities of drones is already creating enormous benefits like efficiently designing solar arrays to take up minimal land, helping farmers maintain and improve their yields, industries manage the security of their assets and track shipment and cops to set up surveillance.

But what fueled this sudden surge?

Like most disruptions, it was a culmination of evolution of several different technologies: Availability of lightweight and energy-rich Lithium batteries, cheaper and better gyroscopes/accelerometers for stabilisation, GPS systems for navigation (thanks to the smartphone wave) and lighter, smaller and more powerful motors and transistors . All of this meant that hobbyists and makers began playing around to create drones.

But in recent years, they moved from the DIY enthusiast and hobbyist camps to a larger commercial theatre.

DJI and the also-rans

China’s DJI has stampeded the commercial drones industry and is believed to own an enormous 85% market share. The most recent reflection of their terrific pace of innovation is Mavic, a foldable little camera drone that packs nearly the same punch as their much large Phantom 4 drone which came out early in 2016. The speed with which they put out new products and their predatory pricing is partly the reason 3D Robotics and Go Pro downsized their teams.

3D Robotics, which received more than $126 million in funding from investors including Qualcomm and Sandisk has been called a “$100 million blunder based on ineptitude”. GoPro’s big bet in its fight against DJI now solely rests on its Karma drone which relaunched in February 2017 following its recall last year due to a host of issues.

There are a few other companies, all fighting for a share of the small remaining pie. Mota Group has a portfolio of cheap drones. Aerovironment is a publicly traded drone company whose shares are seeing the impact of decreasing investor confidence. Yuneec International, another Chinese company, is hoping its products are innovative enough to differentiate in the war of price attrition against DJI.

Making drones isn’t simple. The combination of robotics, deep learning, flight mechanics, automation and the need to design a robust and light structure combined with easy to use consumer UI is a complex endeavor. The shutdown of drone startup Lily, without shipping a single drone, after accumulating more than $30 million in pre-orders, is a stark reminder of this fact.

Swarming to the task

Yet, drones are just getting started. Powered by rapidly improving A.I. and autonomy, the scope of drone applications is likely to explode.

Imagine drone formations that can stay in the air for days, months or even years on end. These could become surveillance installations or even un-tethered communication boosters. The persistence of drones (in the air) could come from the ability of drones to be energy-negative (drones that can power themselves) or from being able to charge on the fly wireless, perhaps juicing up at drone charging towers.

Drone mechanics has a lot of room to grow. More biologically true ‘bat-drones’ could improve maneuverability and efficiency of drones significantly from today’s helicopter-like mechanics. Drones that could crawl through crevices and forests will open new eyes for exploration and surveillance like never before.

Equally significant would be the ability of drones to carry interesting payloads like chemicals to seed clouds for localised rain or seeds to be dispersed for reforestation. Monitoring drones could even pen and herd animals while keeping away unwanted predators.

If DARPA has its way, Drones could soon become perishable. After being let loose from aircraft (or maybe larger drones), these drones could guide themselves to the right spot, drop supplies and disappear in a few hours. This could have extensive benefits, especially in war zones and areas of emergency.

In entertainment drone swarms are already creating awe-striking displays in thin air like at Disney World or Lady Gaga’s half-time show during the superbowl. eHang, a smart-drone company from China, recently created a 1000 drone swarm display as part of the Chinese new year celebrations.

Having thousands of little pixel-generating drones to recreate an LED screen in the sky will have enormous implications for communication, advertising and entertainment. More importantly, a swarm of drones sharing data with each other is likely to see vast areas and map them up using computer vision intelligence like oil spills, locate stranded hikers or people from wreckage and major disaster sites and even engage in pollination like bees.

Unfortunately, floating ads in sky remind us of a dystopian vision of our future like Blade Runner. Pollinating drone bees bring outright ‘Black mirror’ horror.

Drone prone

Before we contend with the cataclysm of killer A.I., we may need to deal with more immediate fears that are rising with the swarms of drones: privacy and safety.

Drones are a safety menace for planes and helicopters. The US FAA receives 140 reports of drone encounters from pilots every month and this is rapidly increasing. Accidents could be disastrous but the bigger fear is of drones with payloads (aka weapons). One look at the flame throwing dragon-drone from China is enough to convince you that it isn’t just a fantasy.

As technology improves commercially and drones can carry bigger payloads, the dangers will also increase exponentially. ISIS is already bringing in commercial drones with payloads as weapons to their war. While individual drones with little firepower may seem innocuous, a swarm of thousand such drones could create a catastrophe.

More worrying may be the fact that drone hacking kits would start proliferating the grey market and dark web allowing hackers to take over and wreak havoc. Commercial drones are very hackable and it has been demonstrated before.

Drones with spy-cams are becoming a common privacy danger. So are drones snooping on data. Researchers recently revealed that drones hovering outside office windows could siphon off valuable information by just reading the code of blinking LED lights that a malware in your computer initiates. Drones can now tap into Wifi networks in buildings that were earlier not possible by either maneuvering themselves close to the floor or on top of the room. They can also send false signals, manipulate packets and reroute communication.

Essentially drones can also be a floating digital weapons.

Drone regulations

Because of the various dangers, regulations have been complex and not very nuanced. Late last year US FAA released its drone operations regulation but it does not cover drone delivery. Regulations for drone deliveries are not expected to be in place before 2020. The current regulations are also restrictive — drones aren’t allowed to fly beyond the sight of their pilots, for instance.

Technology has to evolve and play a key role in freeing up regulations. Collision avoidance and geo-fencing (restricting drone operations to fixed areas) are two essential use-cases that may be coming soon. DJI announced its ‘collision avoidance’ technology in the recent mobile world congress although it is limited in capability. It may be imperative here for the military, which has had years of experience securing its drones against attacks, to share some of the technology with commercial drone makers.

Another industry that is likely to grow is ‘anti drones’ defense. Dedrone, a startup that detects drones and prevents unwanted intrusions, recently raised $15 million to fulfill this endeavor. Identifying intruding drones and perhaps even taking them down (using lasers, jammers or other physical systems) will become as imperative as guards, cameras and other 2D protection systems.

All of this creates a complex environment for regulators and as a result they have taken a restrictive view rather than an enabling view. It is even worse in India.

Drones in India

From photography and videography to surveillance and monitoring drones are being increasingly used across the country. Drone racing is rapidly gaining steam across the country. Forest rangers in India have become big drone converts using them to spot poachers and taking them down (sometimes questionably). The national tiger conservation authority and the wildlife institute of India plans to use drones to map tiger population and also monitor their movements. The police in India are using drones to conduct surveillance in violence-hit areas.

In the aftermath of Chennai cyclones, an insurance company used drone to conduct its investigation of claims through surveys. Many other companies are beginning to use drones for surveillance in real estate to claims assessment to weather prediction.

Despite all this, the government hasn’t followed through after its draft regulations issues in April last year. Even the draft regulations themselves had gaps, for instance, in addressing property rights and trespassing related issues that need to consider the air above the property for framing the law. Privacy related issues were also not sufficiently addressed.

Meanwhile the government’s blanket ban on drones continues. Private players and even government departments, having found the incredible use of drones, are working on fragmented local authority permission model, often treading on the grey-area and hoping that the government turns a blind eye. But this also opens up the possibility of indiscriminate restrictions like those imposed at a state or city level like in Mumbai.

This uncertainty helps no one. The government needs to show willingness to engage with and regulate the emerging areas of technology more nimbly. Failing this, it will lose out on potential investments and innovation. On the flip side, the lack of clear regulations may herald  dangers for safety and piracy.

Also read:

Drones are helping forest guards track, monitor illegal fishing at Pench Forest Reserve

Yes, flying drones can be a full time job: Meet the new drone pilots of Bengaluru

How TheQuadCamBros make stunning drone videos

Coming this October: India’s first drone racing league