Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are here and here to stay. Despite the challenges they currently present in air traffic management and other regards, drones offer safety and cost savings that current manned aircraft cannot. Trade shows keep getting bigger, markets keep expanding and autonomy keeps advancing. It is hard to say what the drone industry will look like at its peak, but industry professionals are convinced it is currently in its infancy. The next three, five, 10 years could each bring significant changes — let alone the next 50.
When R&WI asked drone industry executives what they thought the ecosystem would look like in 50 years, responses included:
“Fifty? Like, ‘five’ ‘zero’?”
“I’m not sure I can see five years into the future, much less 50.”
“That’s a fun question, because we’re used to thinking up to 10 or 20 years — but 50!”
In the past five years, the Assn. for Unmanned Vehicles International (AUVSI) annual trade show, one of the largest for robotics and
autonomy, has gone from a military-majority show to one dominated by commercial projects. One exhibitor noticed 2017 brought an increase of aerial vehicles, as opposed to automated automobiles or maritime technologies. The displayed aircraft also showed an increase in size. Bell Helicopter made its first-ever appearance at the show, and Intel grabbed its first keynote spot with its CEO, Brian Krzanich, showing the audience drone bridge inspections and light shows.
“Data is the new oil,” was Krzanich’s message, and the industry has caught on to that lucrative insinuation. Airbus introduced a new venture in digital data services, Airbus Aerial, and Lockheed Martin emphasized its commercial long-linear infrastructure drone inspection service to a group of reporters. Another idea behind “data is the new oil” is that some think the world will get to a point where autonomous capabilities are on a prospective buyer’s checklist when searching out a vehicle.
“Today, we think we live in a world flooded with data, but compared to the future, today’s amount of data is relatively small,” Krzanich wrote last November in an Intel news item. “In 2016, the average person generates 650 mb of data a day — through use of their PCs, mobile phones and wearables. By 2020, projections show that the average person will generate 1.5 gb of data a day. That’s an impressive 200% increase in less than four years — but it pales in comparison to what we’re about to see in autonomous vehicles.”
He was speaking to the automobile industry at the time. But the sentiment can transcend most industries.
If the drone industry is moving at the speed of smartphone innovation, no one can possibly have a clear idea of what the future will bring. But R&WI asked some industry professionals to take their best guesses.
Craig Marcinkowski is the director of strategy and business development for Gryphon Sensors. The company provides small UAS detecting, tracking and identification services with technology it develops. Low altitude is the workspace right now.
But by 2067, Marcinkowski said he hopes UAS traffic management is long solved.
“It’ll probably be all tied in with autonomous vehicles on the ground,” he said. “That’s going to be fun! You’ll be able to come out of your house and get into some personal air mobility vehicle in a fully integrated airspace, flying autonomously” over people.
Josh Ziering is co-founder and chief pilot for San Francisco, California-based Kittyhawk, a software developer that specializes in commercial UAS logistics. He, too, assumed that by 2067, the government and industry will have solved airspace integration issues and drone endurance challenges. If so, Kittyhawk’s area of expertise could come to the forefront.
“I think it really turns into a big data plan,” Ziering said. “I think that what you end up seeing in the world [in 2067] is hugely improved logistics.”
One of his favorite future applications for drone logistics is the timely transportation of blood, anti-venom or other critical resources. The world is already seeing blood delivery via drone — UPS and Zipline have been transporting blood in Rwanda, with the former providing the logistics and the latter providing the aircraft.
“Blood is a huge issue in the U.S. Some staggering amount of blood goes to waste because it’s hard to store for long periods of time, and having it on hand means it’s not somewhere else,” Ziering said. “Blood is my favorite use case [for future drone logistics], but it could be for any scarce resource.”
Another possible lifesaving drone application could be for hikers. AeroVironment develops airframes, technology and software for drones. Its VP of corporate strategy, communications and investor relations, Steven Gitlin, imagined that in 2067, personal drones could be used for GPS in remote areas.
“What about a pocketable drone that people can take with them when they go hiking?” he proposed. “Not only might it be able to provide them with cool pictures, but if something should happen — if they enter an area they are unfamiliar with — it could help guide them to safety.”
(The idea of more powerful navigation in 2067 was also shared by Akshay Bandiwdekar, product manager of Swift Navigation. The company offers embedded navigation solutions that, in 2017, fit comfortably in one hand. “This [global navigation satellite system receiver module] will probably be the size of a little grain of salt in 50 years,” he said, holding one of his solutions. “And you’ll be able to get centimeter, millimeter accuracy in that size.”)
Gitlin said that over the past 25 years, AeroVironment has been benefitting from the advancements in other industries, like smartphones and computers. Like Ziering, he noted that advancements in UAS endurance and energy density, along with advancements seen in other electronic devices like processing power and imaging chips, could open up a plethora of possibilities. The imaging and processing power could become so powerful by 2067 that drones might be able to identify individual insects in an agricultural application.
“Years from now, we may be able to fly a drone that can specifically identify insects in a crop and tell you exactly where they are and what they’re doing and perhaps even enable you to neutralize them in some way,” he said. “There are all kinds of possibilities; it’s an incredibly exciting industry to be in.”
Or maybe sensors could be drones in and of themselves. Curtis Generous, CTO of weather data and service provider Earth Networks, said his vision of the future involved flying sensors.
“So imagine tiny, microscopic sensors that can literally fly by swarms, by the tens of thousands, and they could, at any one moment, fly through regions and get very, very micro-accurate weather patterns,” he said. “That, combined with very high computation capabilities and better models, you’ll be able to get accurate forecasts down to the minute. That’s where I think the combination of these tiny micro-sensors, better models, higher computation capabilities and just understanding the meteorology will really affect how we look at weather.”
His colleague, CMO Anuj Agrawal, didn’t have any microscopic flying sensors in his vision. But he did forecast that in 2067, weather wouldn’t even be an issue.
“In terms of weather, I think it will be a non-issue, actually. You’ll look up in the sky and you’ll see drones all over the place and they’ll all have weather information on them,” he said. “You’ll be able to get real-time weather information for basically any point in the sky. It’ll take a combination of smaller package weather sensors that are lighter, as well as higher capacity, more evolved batteries that can sustain longer missions and sustain more weight. There are going to be a lot of sensors on there; they’re going to be packing on so many different types of sensors that you’ll have to make them as light as possible so that the drone can fly. You’re going to see all the data processing happening on the drone, too. You’re going to see the evolution in terms of the processing power, as well as the telecom perspective, being able to transmit all the information back to a network.”
Or, maybe, some areas of the UAS industry will not have developed that much by 2067. Asylon is a company that has developed drone battery-swapping technology. Asylon COO Brent McLaughlin said batteries are an area in which people frequently have ideas about the next big thing. Yet the frequency of that technological breakthrough coming to market is significantly less.
“I think it’d be interesting to see us move completely away from the electric battery and see an alternative — maybe hydrogen or some other fuel. There are obviously significant hurdles that need to be overcome, such as the explosive nature of hydrogen. But [lithium polymer] batteries are pretty explosive at times, too,” he said. “Part of me says it won’t be that much different than what it is now, just because it’s a hard nut to crack. There’s a lot of money being poured into the battery industry, which is exciting. But it’s kind of hard for me to get super excited and hopeful about battery technology in 50 years. Who knows? There are some really incredibly smart people working on that problem.”
The truth is that it is nearly impossible to know. The rate of change in the UAS industry seems exponential, making it hard to even cast a prediction. But of those who gave answers, most seem to latch onto the idea that the advanced technology will be commonplace in 2067. In 50 years, challenges that presented themselves when the FAA officially named UAS as a category of aircraft should all be resolved. Individual drones doing individual missions would no longer warrant any attention, and all industries would use drone technology in everyday operation. This is the world that Michael Chasen, CEO of UAS software and technology developer and service provider PrecisionHawk imagines 2067 will be like.
“Government entities and companies using drones to go where people can’t or to collect data is going to become commonplace,” Chasen said. “I think in 50 years, [the AUVSI show] is going to be the size of Comdex. And it may still be a drone conference, but I think drone technology is going to be incorporated in all the different industries. You won’t come to a drone conference to see drones. You’ll come to see drones being used in everything, from energy to insurance to agriculture, construction — all these different spaces where they have developed special capabilities to help move those industries forward.”