Futurist Thomas Frey: It all started when Toni, one of our staffers working on our flying drone workshop, asked me a simple question. She asked, “Since I live in an apartment complex, if I order something to be delivered by drone, where would they leave the package?”
This naturally led to a longer conversation and we instantly ticked off around a dozen other problems that will need to be overcome before we can expect drone delivery to become a viable option.
As a futurist, I’ve often gotten caught up in understanding what an emerging industry will eventually look like, but tend to gloss over the labyrinth of issues that will invariably plague the early stage pioneers willing to plow through the messy early years and take on all the risks.
Naturally there are many areas where flying drones could instantly be put to use, but when it comes to having a company like Amazon offer product delivery throughout its system, these simple flying machines suddenly take on “workhorse” status requiring levels of durability, automation, and system-building that are currently missing inside most conversations.
For example, early stage drone delivery will require a pilot for every package, making it an expensive option. Not only will pilots need to navigate their way to the destination, they’ll need to handle the empty return flight back as well. Eventually this will be automated, but it’s not a simple task.
Since electric drones have very limited battery life and range, delivery drones will most likely be fueled with gas or some other petrochemical. Gas powered drones have issues with noise and pollution that will cause many communities to start restricting their use.
With limited range and capacity, only a select few items will be eligible for this kind of delivery. When it comes to delivering food, companies will need to carefully monitor portion sizes because weight will become an increasingly important variable.
After considering many of these current deficiencies, I thought it might be helpful to begin listing some of the key technical, system, and regulatory challenges that lie ahead. At the same time, every problem creates an opportunity, and the sooner our emerging drone entrepreneurs learn how to capitalize on these problems, the sooner we’ll see this industry take off like many of us are imagining.
With that in mind, here are 37 near-term issues that will need to be solved.
The Coming “Cautionary Tale” Era
Fear sells. Most of the news coming from traditional media has a fear component to it. We tend to pay close attention to those things we feel threatened by, and those crafting the most effective headline have an ingenious knack for penetrating the fragile armor protecting our emotional self.
When hitchhiking was all the rage in the 1970s, news stories harping on a few outlier incidents killed societies first large scale attempt at ridesharing, drawing far more attention to the isolated tragedies rather than the mass-market successes.
They also put a huge damper on early social media companies like MySpace by creating headlines around a small number of young teens who were coerced into becoming victims of pedophile stalkers and leaving out the large scale benefits of this kind of social interaction.
I certainly don’t want to minimize the dangers and tragedies associated with these crimes. But every new technology and every new social system requires some level of oversight and management.
This line of thinking will drive a similar era of cautionary tales surrounding the flying drone industry, turning it into a battle for the minds of average consumers.
For this reason, drone industry leaders, startups, and representatives will need to take the initiative in forging guidelines in this unchartered territory. With foreign competition rapidly gaining the upper hand, this is one area of business that doesn’t have the luxury of allowing things to unfold in a normal fashion.
Yanko Design’s concept delivery drone with
both fixed wing-vertical takoff capabilities
37 Critical Problems that need to be Solved
The intent of composing this list is not to put any sort of damper on this exploding new industry. Rather, the sooner people realize that solving these problems are ripe territory for entrepreneurial activity, the sooner a full-fledged commerce-driven wave of unmanned aerial vehicles can assume their labor-saving positions in the skies overhead.
1. Designated Delivery Spots – Much like mail delivery, drones will need designated places for package delivery. Commercial delivery to businesses will have different guidelines than home delivery.
2. Durability – Manufacturing drones durable enough to make 100 deliveries between scheduled maintenance and 10,000 flights over their lifetime will be an absolute necessity.
3. Conditional Awareness – Drones will invariable fly into unusual situations, and whether it’s swarms of bees, bird attacks, lightening strikes, or signal jammers, they will need to alert operators of problems as soon as they arise.
4. Black Boxes – Much like today’s commercial aircrafts, whenever a drone crashes, some sort of signaling device will be needed to allow for follow-up investigation and cleanup.
5. Maintenance Plans – Today’s hobbyist drones seem like simple contraptions, but higher end delivery drones will need a consistent schedule for prop replacement, motor alignment, sensor checks, controller board cleaning, etc.
6. Override Kill Switch – Wireless signals are far from perfect. If a signal is lost, hacked, or hijacked, the drone must either return home or be removed from danger.
7. Drone Classification System – Drones are being created in thousands of different shapes and sizes with thousands of different capabilities. A comprehensive classification system will be needed to properly manage and regulate this industry.
8. Cargo Classification System – Cargo classification systems applied to ground-based shipping will need to be revised for the more volatile conditions associated with remote controlled airborne vehicles.
9. Drone Insurance – Drones, drone cargo, and drone businesses will soon become the largest new market for insurance companies.
10. Vehicle Licensing – Every drone that falls within certain classification guidelines will need to be licensed and insured.
11. Pilot Licensing – Those who fly drones will need to be tested and licensed in a less rigorous but similar way that airplane pilots are tested today.
12. Operator Licensing – People who load and unload cargo onto flying drones will also need to be licensed.
13. Weather Contingency Plans – Every drone will have to deal with extreme weather at one time or another. Any condition ranging from wind, to rain, snow, hail, extreme heat or extreme cold, will need a contingency plan for both the retrieval and safe delivery of the cargo.
14. Privacy Rules – Privacy means different things to different people, but flying drones with cameras, scanners, and sensors give nefarious people far more capabilities than ever before. Privacy rules will need to be established sooner than later.
15. Security Rules – Once a famous person’s delivery address becomes known, they run the risk of receiving unwanted packages, solicitations, threats, and even things like chemical attacks.
16. Drone Spam Rules – Much like junk mail and spam email, flying drones open up the possibility of receiving everything from annoying products samples to mean-spirited pranks. Rules for “drone hate crimes” and “drone bullying” will soon follow.
17. Noise Guidelines – The larger the drone and the greater the distance it has to cover, the larger the engine it will need to operate. Since electric drones only cover short distances, some form of petrochemical fuel will be needed, and these vehicles will be noisy. Rather than waiting for 10,000 communities to imposed their own one-off noise ordinances, it would be better for the industry to be proactive in this area.
18. Automated Here-to-There Delivery – Drone delivery only becomes a mass-market affordable option when human operators are removed from the equation.
19. Grasp and Release Mechanisms – People who set a package out front, wanting to send it across town, will require a pickup drone capable of automated grasp and release.
20. Aerodynamic Packaging – Packages attached to the bottom of a drone will need to be far more aerodynamic than the rectangular boxes most commonly delivered today.
21. Fly-Drive Capabilities – Because of trees, porticos, awnings, and overhangs, drones may need the ability to land on open space and drive to the appropriate delivery spot.
22. Collision Avoidance Systems – With the potential of flying into everything from power lines, to trees, windmills, Christmas decorations, and other UAVs, a comprehensive collision avoidance system will be necessary.
23. Crowded Skies Navigation System – At some point in the future there may be as many as 10,000 drones flying over a city in a given day. Not only will they need to avoid flying into buildings, trees, and commercial aircraft, they will need to avoid other drones as well.
24. Drone Operating System – An operating system is the most important software that runs on a computer because it defines how it functions. Computer buyers typically will choose between Android, iOS, Linux, or Windows for their operating system. Since drones have a different role and purpose, they will require an entirely different kind of operating system.
25. Shot from the Sky Recourse – Many disturbed individuals will view drones as a “form of target practice.” Drone owners and operators will need recourse for these situations.
26. Political Awareness – Paranoia is already rampant when it comes to all the bad things people can do with drones. For this reason its imperative that politicians be given special attention so they can understand the cost-benefit ratio associated with any of their decisions.
27. Consumer Awareness – Rather than letting the news media define the industry, this emerging industry needs to be proactive in defining itself.
Soon to become the policeman’s new best friend
28. Education for the Drone Police – Police will not only employ drones to assist in managing public safety, they will also use drones to monitor other drones. Drones are far more versatile and faster to deploy than virtually all other options officers have at their disposal.
29. Education for Drone Lobbyists – Drones will become one of the most highly regulated industries of all times. It is not too soon to start educating the influencers.
30. Education & Certification for Drone Pilots – With all their different configurations, styles, and function, drone pilots will require far different training than airline pilots do. Currently there are very few simulation programs available for practice.
31. Education for Drone Maintenance and Repair – People who service and fix drones will be in hot demand in the near future.
32. Drone Financing – As the need for instrumentation and safety equipment mushrooms, delivery drones will become far more expensive. As a result, drone financing will become a hot new area of business in the near future.
33. Flying Drone Bill of Rights – Do people have the right to “keep and bear drones?”
34. Docking Systems – People will eventually not want packages delivered onto their driveways. For example, any pizza left on a driveway becomes an open invitation for cats, dogs, and other stray animals. A better option would be to have some sort of docking system that would allow the drone to land and deliver the package into a secure area.
35. Better Battery Tech – Battery technology has not progressed nearly fast enough for the drone industry. Even gas-powered drones will likely need batteries to fly through “quiet zones” such as hospitals, nursing homes, and environmentally sensitive areas.
36. Airbag Crash Protectors – Accidents will happen and on occasion, drones will indeed fall out of the sky. To prevent large drones with heavy or dangerous payload from causing serious damage to people and property on the ground, some form of rapidly inflating airbag will be needed.
37. Invisible Fences – There will be many no-fly zones around the world and these zones will need the equivalent of an “invisible fence” to keep intruders out.
An Overarching Need for Standards
With a growing need for everything from standardized operating systems, to standardized packaging, standardized docking systems, and standardized emergency protocols, there is a looming need for literally thousands of new standards to be composed, and different ones for every classification, capability, and interoperability issue surrounding drones.
At the same time, every new invention, innovation, or business methodology opens the doors for even more standards.
As far as standards go, this problem-opportunity vein can be mined steadily for decades to come.
Replacing the FAA as the Regulatory Body
Watching the FAA representatives at last month’s congressional hearings on drones made it overwhelmingly obvious that the FAA is out of its depth as the appropriate regulatory body.
Just because drones and aircraft share the same skies does not mean the two industries are enough alike to share the same regulatory body. In fact, aviation expertise may actually be a detriment to allow this industry to properly unfold.
Too much regulation too early will stifle entrepreneurial drive and initiative. At the same time, too little regulation will open the doors for countless potential catastrophes. It’s a delicate balance and good to err on the side of caution, but important to not stifle creativity and development at the same time.
The recent crash of a drone on the Whitehouse lawn is a clear example of just how far this technology still needs to go.
Yes, the problems keep mounting, and this is only the short list.
The problems listed above may seem overwhelming at first, but its quite common for any emerging industry to have a myriad of issues to contend with. The challenge here is that the amount of time for solving them will need to be compressed into a fraction of that for past technologies like automobiles, electricity, airplanes, or telephones.
Expect a contentious playground in the years ahead. The unleashing has only just begun.
Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything