Professional interest in drones began to solidify in 2017. Part 107 landed the year before and it jumpstarted a wave of industry confidence that led commercial operators and business owners to produce some of the most exciting UAV initiatives since the drone revolution began. The future looks bright for 2018, but don’t expect the ground to stand still. We expect a lot of big changes in 2018 and here are just a few of them:
Near real-time flight approvals
The national beta test of LAANC (the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability), will foster more innovations and commercial flights with near real-time, automatic approval to fly in controlled airspace below approved altitudes. If the beta test is successful in the 10 test regions, a full rollout will eliminate a point of anxiety for legitimate commercial pilots seeking to permission to fly in controlled airspace.
Increased use in public safety and disaster relief
Part 107 cleared the road for emergency services, law enforcement, and fire departments to start investing seriously in drone programs in 2017. This trend is bound to continue as clear use cases have been established where drones can save and protect lives or rapidly assess accident and crime scenes. Notably, the Menlo Park Fire District has worked with both DJI and Intel on initiatives to train firemen in the use of drones and build hardware suited for the unique requirements of firefighting. In the arena of disaster and emergency response, drones proved their utility in the Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and Maria relief efforts. 2017 showed drones power to save lives, and hopefully will save more in 2018.
Improvements in image fidelity and data processing
Advancements in image fidelity and data management will improve the speed and accuracy of drone operations in construction, surveying and mapping, inspection, and mining and aggregates. Drone teams will have to learn how to deal with data glut and build out internal systems for protecting and storing terabytes of data. They will be aided on the software side by the improvement of image processing algorithms and computer-aided assessments via machine learning. Once drones can consistently produce better than survey quality data, there’s no turning back.
Progress on the battery life problem
Pressure on manufacturers for longer flight times will lead to progress in battery life or stop-gap solutions until moonshot technologies like lithium-sulfur batteries materialize. Tethered drones only solve the battery issue in a limited range of situations, and will continue to be successful in those edge cases.
The rise of the enterprise drone pilot
Internal drone teams will be founded across a large swath of industries and independent pilots will invest in professional education to make them more attractive to enterprise clients. The long-term effect will be the slow erosion of the skills gap holding UAVs back from unilateral integration. Industry-specific knowledge and experience will become increasingly important.
Partnerships, partnerships, and more partnerships
Drone companies of every make and measure forged critical partnerships in 2017. We even saw 3DR integrate its Site Scan platform with DJI’s drones, an unthinkable thought in 2015. The improved software, hardware, and services integration will benefit consumers and help pick the winners and losers in the drone space for 2018.
Growing professionalism for a growing industry
There will be a continued uptick in registered non-hobbyist drones, growing commercial drone fleets, and Part 107 certifications. One doesn’t have to buy into unrealistic growth projections to know the industry is still on an upward trajectory. Gone are the days when the industry was all DIYers and tinkerers, but that spirit will continue into the future as the new professional class of drone pilots shape the commercial industry in 2018.