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.
The latest Heavy Reading Insider, "Connected Drones… Seriously," examines the emerging market for commercial, connected drones. It describes the emerging value chains and functional stratification of the technologies that make up a modern connected drone. It examines the most significant issues facing the commercial drone sector -- in particular related to connectivity -- and summarizes what is happening in the development of drones as network nodes. It reviews the supply-side landscape of the industry and profiles 14 companies -- from very small startups to giant technology corporates -- that are working in the connected drone space.
— Danny Dicks, Analyst, Heavy Reading Insider
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