Sales in the drone market look set to hit the $100 million mark in 2015; a full 50% more than last year, according to estimates by the Consumer Electronics Association. And while various factors might be holding drones back from mainstream usage for the time being, that didn’t stop them from having their own special ‘Unmanned Systems Marketplace’ section at CES 2015, with fifteen exhibitors present, compared to just four in 2014.
“Drones and unmanned systems are being used to assist in a variety of applications, from aerial coverage for sports and real estate, to assistance in search and rescue and disaster relief missions,” says the CEA’s Karen Chupka. “We’re excited to introduce the Unmanned Systems Marketplace at the 2015 CES and witness how these unique tools are revolutionising the way we capture and monitor our world.”
The commercial applications of drone technology are obvious, but Rachel Metz is unconvinced that your average man on the street will be interested. “The market for consumer-geared unmanned aircraft is still small, and it’s not quite clear what the devices will be used for,” she says. “The companies making them seem to believe buyers will enjoy simply flying around taking videos, and will eventually invent new uses that increase their appeal.”
Whatever their potential purpose, there is one prohibitive issue currently preventing drones from taking off in the consumer space; regulation. As is so often the case, the technology is being developed at a considerably brisker pace than the relevant guidelines. The process of approving and certifying new models as they come to market is a long one, and while the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) is eager to assist and enable this emerging sector, it isn’t rushing into changing the rules overnight. The organisation announced last year it would miss the 2015 deadline set by Congress for legalising unmanned aircraft flight in US air space, citing the risk of collisions and stating that there needs to be a standardised code of conduct for all operators.
There are already firm rules in place to govern businesses who wish to use unmanned aerial vehicles and have pledged to meet any and all safety requirements: “People who are being paid to do a job are more likely to take risks to accomplish that,” says the FAA’s Jim Williams, justifying the strict conditions placed on commercial drone use.
The FAA was present at CES promoting its ‘Know Before You Fly’ campaign, which instructs Joe Public in how to fly drones safely. Educating consumers in the appropriate use of this technology is crucial, says 3D Robotics CEO Chris Anderson, reasoning that “as the technology gets more sophisticated, the users get less sophisticated.”
In addition to regulatory compliance, power is another major obstacle. With an average battery life of just 20 minutes across both budget and top of the line models, companies are going to have to do a lot better before consumers are willing to fork out. Then there are secondary concerns such as pricing and privacy; most systems are equipped with surveillance technology, prompting several questions about security which will need to be addressed.
“Drones are arguably the most hyped product at CES,” says CSS Insight analyst Ben Wood, who describes this fast-growing area as “a veritable minefield in terms of regulation and safety”. However, once the issues in design and regulation are resolved and the price tag becomes more accessible, he fully expects them to become the new must-have item, and imagines they will be on more than a few Christmas lists by the end of this year.