When Brandon Torres Declet began considering the potential of unmanned aircraft more than a decade ago as a US counter-terrorism official, his main concern was drones falling into the wrong hands.
“We were discussing how remote controlled model aircraft could potentially be used as a means to deliver chemical weapons, biological weapons or even and IED [improvised explosive device],” Declet says.
Fast forward to today and the thinking about the potential of unmanned aircraft has evolved from security and military context, to commercial.
Not content with developing driverless cars, Google last month conducted successful drone test deliveries of Cherry Ripe chocolate bars, dog food and a first aid kit to a farmer in outback Queensland.
Australia, Canada and Europe are at the forefront of allowing commercial drones, due to those countries providing more accommodating regulatory environments.
Australian textbook rental start-up Zookal is testing drones to drop off books to customers in partnership with local drone delivery start up Flirtey.
“Zookal has been looking for innovative solutions to the logistics problem of costly and timely deliveries,” Flirtey chief executive Matt Sweeney says.
“With economies of scale, we expect to see long term reduction of costs in delivery and a strong environmental benefit with the reduction of vans on the roads doing deliveries.”
Small unmanned aircraft and quadcopters can be used by farmers to apply pesticides in outback paddocks, energy companies for pipeline inspections, filmmakers for unique video shots and emergency crews to monitor bushfires and mudslides.
“It’s an exciting space because we are able to do things from the air we haven’t been able to do with manned aircraft,” says Declet, a former intelligence official at the Pentagon, New York Police Department and legal counsel on the US House of Representatives homeland security committee.
Keeping true to his belief in the potential of drones for commercial purposes, Declet has formed Washington-based drone advisory firm Measure, even though the US outlaws the use of drones for commercial purposes.
Currently in the US, a teenager can walk into a 7-Eleven and buy a drone for $US99 ($106) to fly in their local neighbourhood. But large companies are banned from using the technology.
Despite the ban, which is being reviewed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), major US companies are racing to develop the capability of drones to improve customer service, save money and get a bird’s eye view of hard to see places.
Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of e-retailer Amazon, has talked up the potential for unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver small packages to customers in less than 30 minutes.
Amazon is now pitted in a head-to-head battle with Google to become the first US company to deliver goods via drone on a large scale.
Oil and gas major ExxonMobil wants to conduct pipeline and flare stack inspections from drones.
In Britain, a Domino’s franchise last year delivered two pizzas in a heatwave bag via the “DomiCopter”.
Despite the attractions, there are some major legal hurdles drone-advocates in the US need to overcome.
Only two commercial licences have been granted by the FAA. Oil giant BP in June was licensed to use a six-kilogram aircraft to collect and analyse data at its oil field in Alaska.
Other businesses in the US are ignoring the commercial ban and using drones anyway.
The prohibition exists for two major reasons; concerns about safety and privacy.
The US has more air traffic than any other country in the world. Without proper rules in place, regulators worry that an influx of drones into the national airspace could result in midair crashes or accidents on the ground if drones fall from the sky.
Civil libertarians fret about law enforcement agencies and others using drones to snoop on people in backyards or conduct other surveillance.
‘YOU HAVE TO HOLD PEOPLE ACCOUNTABLE’
Among the professions touted to be able to exploit the technology is the Paparazzi, replacing their long zoom cameras with remote controlled aircraft mounted with a GoPro camera to snap celebrities in secluded locations.
Michael Toscano, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, admits unmanned aircraft are an “extension of your eyes and ears”.
But he says the answer is not to prevent the new disruptive technology. The internet has enabled cyber theft, transmission of pornography and online bullying, but it is not banned.
Similarly, he says, more than a million people die in car accidents around the world each year, but there is no suggestion cars should be banned.
“You have to hold people accountable for misuse of the technology,” Toscana says. “If it can never have an incident or failure, then you will never field the technology.”
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International is advocating for every commercial drone to carry an electronic chip registered on a FAA database to identify the operator.
Drone proponents are also trumpeting the significant cost savings to business drones offer.
Depending on the size of the drone, the cost can range from about $100 to $200 an hour, compared to up to $2000 an hour for a manned aircraft.
The option to lease, rather than buy the aircraft, also saves large capital investment outlays and provides flexibility in choosing the type of drone for different tasks, Declet says.
The FAA is due to publish long-awaited US guidelines for commercial drones weighing less than 25 kilograms this year. It’s likely to be several years before drones are allowed to operate commercially in the US.
Another dilemma that will need to be solved is that the current aviation law requires aircraft to be controlled by a licensed pilot. Toscano believes that law needs to reflect modern reality.
“The joke is in the future there is going to be a dog and pilot in the cockpit,” Toscano says.
“The pilot is there to feed the dog and the dog is there to bite the pilot if he tries to touch any of the buttons.”