Why Drones Won't Be Putting You Out of a Job… Yet

Consider this: US drone company SkyCatch has a commercial agreement with Japanese earth-moving equipment maker Komatsu to provide drones that will survey construction sites remotely and automatically. The survey data gathered from the drones' cameras will enable Komatsu's robotic bulldozers to carry out site preparation work without waiting for conventional ground-based surveys.

Apart from the people looking after the software, where are the workers in this? The skilled construction equipment drivers? The professional surveyors? Is this an automated nightmare -- a foretaste of a time when drones and robots substitute for every kind of job, however skilled? With delivery drones being trialed in Germany by DHL, tested by Amazon in the UK and elsewhere, and tried out in Africa for medicine delivery, might whole swathes of field-based jobs disappear?

Well -- possibly some tasks will disappear, at least in wide open spaces. The potential for autonomous drones to carry out tasks that have traditionally been carried out on the ground (slowly) or using aircraft (expensively) is approaching. The only thing preventing more use and development of drones for these types of applications at the moment is regulation restricting the autonomous flight without a line-of-sight (LoS) "pilot." That requirement significantly reduces the economic case for the use of drones and prevents the development and deployment of systems to manage fleets of drones for an individual owner or more widely across specific airspace.

The draft FAA drone regulations in the US, published in February 2015, confirms that LoS pilots are still needed; furthermore, they restrict commercial drone activity over populated areas. (See FAA Lays Out First Proposal for Small Drones .)

So in the US, and quite likely in other countries where the FAA's lead will likely be followed, the current view is "safety first." So we don't all immediately need to start looking at our pension fund and thinking whether it's big enough to retire on.

However, the FAA regulations are only draft at this stage. There are other countries where regulations are not as tight. NASA is working on an air traffic control system for drones. The industry is making the safety case for autonomous operation (after all, pilot error contributes to accidents). And there's increasing acceptance of the medium-term case for analogous autonomic systems, such as driverless cars. So autonomy will almost certainly come. My advice for surveyors is check out image analysis software. For bulldozer drivers -- learn how to maintain the equipment. And delivery drivers -- I reckon you're OK for several years.

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— Danny Dicks, Analyst, Heavy Reading Insider

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mendyk 4/23/2015 | 10:12:48 AM
Re: drones Automation started displacing labor when the first wheel rolled off the assembly stone. The pace of that displacement continues to accelerate. Clearly, though, the idea of replacing C-level executives with robots is somethiing we all should be looking forward to. Especially shareholders -- think of the overhead savings and margin improvements.
danielcawrey 4/22/2015 | 9:06:44 PM
Re: drones I know people are wary of the idea that drones will take away jobs – and they should be concerned about this. Do I think drones and robots will take everyone's job? No. But they are going to certainly ursurp at least some of them. 
Mitch Wagner 4/22/2015 | 12:17:28 PM
Re: drones 20+ years ago, Nicholas Negroponte said that if your job has "agent" in the title, it's in danger of being automated out of business by the Internet. 

The same can be said today for inspectors, delivery services, and drones. 
Ariella 4/22/2015 | 11:11:39 AM
drones For certain jobs, the drones would be like any other equipment -- a help rather than a replacement. That would certainly apply to surveying. Surveyors already make use of high-tech gadgets that use GPS to take reads on places that are not easily traversed by foot. That just gives them the data; they still have to come up with the report and planning based on it.
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