This is the first in an occasional series about the future of the U.S. drone industry. This column examines the commercial potential of drones and some of the marketplace challenges facing the industry. Future columns will take an in-depth look at the industry’s technological, infrastructure and regulatory challenges.
Drones, a.k.a. “unmanned aircraft systems (UAS),” tend to be commonly misunderstood. Many people view them as playthings of the rich, a leftover gag from the old cartoon series The Jetsons or a sinister surveillance weapon used by a Bond villain.
None of these myths, however, does justice to a technology that is – quite literally – just beginning to take off. With their onboard computer-controlled cameras and their capacity to go places that people and other machines cannot, drones hold enormous promise to sharpen law enforcement, crack down on terrorism, help farmers monitor crops, assist insurance agents in assessing damaged assets, and, all in all, buoy the retail, transportation and entertainment industries, among others. If the Internet can deliver information, then drones can deliver almost everything else.
Drones may end up being one of the most productive and lucrative uses of autonomous technology and robotics, argues Matt Scassero, director of the University of Maryland’s UAS Test Site.
“Think about it,” Scassero says. “In barely a century, the world has gone from inventing manned flight to pioneering unmanned flight. It’s breathtaking.”
As Microsoft founder and technologist Bill Gates puts it, “Drones overall will be more impactful than I think people recognize, in positive ways to help society.” Microsoft is among the tech companies making a concerted push on UAS.
A December 2017 McKinsey & Company study echoes Gates’ view, documenting the dramatic commercial growth of the U.S. drone industry, from a mere $40 million in 2012 to well north of a billion dollars in 2017. Some 300 companies – including such aviation and aerospace behemoths as General Electric, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman – are making substantial investments of time and resources in drones, points out Mark A. Ryan, the founder and CEO of Ryan Media Lab, Inc.
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