Drones: Autonomous or automated?

Dec 15, 2016 4:20:00 PM  |  0 Comments

As with any emerging technology, the American drone industry is full of visionaries and dreamers, awake to the promise of what the technology could mean for them, their respective businesses, and the nation’s economic dynamism.

These individuals don’t envision a world where drones merely capture video; but one where they can also livestream breaking news straight to the newsroom. Drones won’t simply perform telecommunication inspections, but will swarm to beam internet from up high. Drones won’t only deliver pizza, but deliver pizza of their own volition, with no operator in sight.  While this type of innovation is on the horizon, it has not yet fully arrived. For emerging technologies such as drones, it’s dangerous to present what is beyond the realm of current reality as possible; unrealistic expectations will inevitably result in underperformance, which will result in loss of confidence in a promising industry.

To truly see broad adoption of drones, potential must not be projected onto the reality of the situation. Existing limitations of drones must be addressed so true benefits are recognized and the technology is ready to be embraced when it reaches its full potential. Keep in mind that new commercial regulations were issued less than six months ago. Please do not be mistaken; the world needs visionaries. But drone industry members pushing for immediate adoption must be clear and honest about what is feasible for the industry today.



 An example of what drones are currently capable of: telecommunications inspections.


In a prime example of the confusion of fantasy and reality, you might see the word “autonomy” paired with drone technology. But those familiar with the technology and performing complex operations at scale may not be so quick to pair the two. To describe a piece of technology as “autonomous” entails the absence of an operator that is responsible for that technology. Currently, drones cannot perform all of their functions without operator intervention or supervision—even at their most autonomous, these drones still require an individual to preprogram their flight paths. From this definition, drones are not fully autonomous; they are, however, automated. In automated systems, an operator decides the course of action for the technology.

The distinction between autonomy and automation is essential; currently much of the hype in this market insinuates that many drones have already reached an autonomous state. Drones, especially in niche markets such as enterprise commercial services, will need humans for the foreseeable future whether to take control when something goes wrong, or adapt a flight path to an unexpected environmental obstacle. It is inevitable that as technology improves, humans will play a less hands-on role in actual flight operations, but one can never lose sight of the fact that a high level of responsibility is required to operate drones in the national airspace.



 An example of the distinction between autonomy and automation in the construction industry. Source: Equipment World


The day that drones fly without human operators is still far off in the future; further technological advancements such as obstacle avoidance and unmanned traffic management still need to develop for drones to even achieve a modicum of autonomy.  Meanwhile, those enterprises who have already incorporated drones into their workflow with realistic expectations and experienced operators can expect those operators to grow with them into the foreseeable future. Drones have demonstrable ROI now, regardless of whether they are autonomous or not.

Eventually, drones will become autonomous as many have dreamed, but for now the role of human operators in drone services is essential. It would benefit us all to think levelheadedly of the current capabilities of drone technology—to expect the success of a use case that has been prematurely promised only to be let down by the true results can severely hinder adoption for the industry overall.

For an analysis of different drone business models, check out our previous blog post on franchising.

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