Pop sensation Lady Gaga is known for living on the cutting edge of music and fashion — consumer avionics, not so much. But the diva has indeed reached new heights in this field as well with the debut of a flying dress, named “Volantis,” that relies on the same technology used in multiple-rotor unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as drones. Although Gaga’s contraption will likely be confined to arena shows and festivals, drones are garnering significant attention from less fanciful parties as practical tools for everyday life.
The web retail giant Amazon recently made waves with its test of “Amazon Prime Air,” a proposed express delivery service that would deploy an “octocopter,” an unmanned, eight-rotor helicopter, to drop packages directly at the customer’s doorstep. Domino’s Pizza recently sponsored a successful drone delivery of another sort, using its prototype “DomiCopter” to send two pizzas to a hungry buyer. While Domino’s plans to start up a flight academy for pizza pilots should its plans take off, Amazon aims to automate its drones, using GPS coordinates to direct them from a distribution center to their destinations.
Importantly, both Amazon and Domino’s were forced to conduct their recent tests outside the United States due to the current regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration, which currently forbid the civillian operation of UAVs outside the operator’s line of sight. Although some exceptions are made for university research, the vast majority of drones in the US are operated by federal law enforcement: the FBI has spent at least $3 million on UAVs in support of its operations, while the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are testing drones for future deployment.
While the FAA has released a plan for the incorporation of civilian drones into US airspace by 2015, some commentators worry that the agency is moving too slowly for the pace of the technology. As the Washington Post’s Brian Fung writes, the regulatory lag “offers a concrete example of what the country stands to lose, as the market for civil drone use picks up globally.” And the global market is expected to explode: Phil Finnegan, an analyst with the aerospace think tank Teal Group, predicts that civilian drone sales will reach $8.2 billion by 2020.
However exciting the prospect, pizza delivery will make up only a small portion of this market. One of the largest predicted applications is precision agriculture: by equipping UAVs with cameras and sprayers, for examples, farmers can determine exactly where pesticides or herbicides are needed and quickly apply the chemicals without wasted effort. Drone fleets could also prove invaluable to mining operations, where constantly updating images could inform managers about important changes in open pit mines.
Although civilian drones may be some years away in the US, the Chinese delivery company SF Express is already using UAVs to deliver small packages, and Canada has a certification program in place for aspiring pilots. Perhaps a little healthy international competition will help America move forward on freeing its skies to drones… and maybe Lady Gaga.