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Enterprise Drones: What CIOs Should Know

Flying drones are coming to the enterprise: Will CIOs and the FAA be ready?
 =CES 2015: 11 Peeks Into The Future
CES 2015: 11 Peeks Into The Future
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

Drones. They haunt the nightmares of FAA commissioners, add to the worries of pilots, and give wing to the flying dreams of thousands upon thousands of hobbyists. And they might just be a key to solving a critical business need for your company. Are you ready?

At CES 2015, it seemed that drones were featured every 30 feet along the aisles. From ones with wings to others with rotors, palm-sized to craft that look like they could lift a Holstein, drones were available in just about every configuration and size imaginable. While most were aimed squarely at the consumer market, when I spoke with representatives from manufacturers it became obvious that many were fielding questions (and participating in trials) with a wide variety of enterprise customers.

Before we dive into that, let's clear up some terminology. "Drone" is a generic term for an unmanned vehicle, and many in the industry hate it. Some dislike it because of associations with military vehicles, while others don't appreciate the imprecision of the word. Industry insiders tend to prefer language that gives insight into the configuration of the aircraft: quadcopter (four rotors), hexcopter (six rotors), and octocopter (eight rotors) are the most common. As a rule, more rotors means more lifting capacity, but the field is sufficiently new to render rules more like broad suggestions at this point.

[Want more on the future of drones? Hear 3D Robotics CEO Chris Anderson speak at the InformationWeek Conference, April 27 & 28 in Las Vegas.]

So what are companies doing with all of these unmanned copters? The shortest, catch-all answer is that they're putting cameras (and other sensors) in places where human beings have trouble putting themselves. What are some examples? Let's start with the visual inspection possibilities. In agriculture, large companies are already exploring using quadcopters to inspect fields (or groves) from angles or in spans of time that are difficult to achieve for humans on foot or in ground-based vehicles.

In this footage, the bananas can be rapidly inspected at close range, from the top, in rapid fashion. In other notable examples, drones have been used to inspect large powerplant cooling towers, study lava flows, and explore the limits of a Corvette-swallowing sinkhole.

Things seem even more promising when we look at copters that carry more than simple optical instruments. Amazon and local pizza shops have taken the press spotlight with the possibility of dropping food and electronics into your living room, but more likely (and much more immediate) scenarios include carrying non-optical sensors into difficult locations and delivering specific payloads (think agricultural chemicals) with less cost and more precision than is possible with manned vehicles.

With all of these business cases, the biggest question is about regulation. Where does the industry stand in terms of the legality of doing any of this in US airspace? The answer is that everything is illegal, except those things that aren't. Feel better now?

That's a bit trite, but only a bit. It seems that the FAA, in an attempt to bring some order to the small-scale skies, has claimed authority for every flying thing down to paper airplanes and Andrew Luck's post patterns. While that's a nice thing for it to do for a consistent, legal framework, it creates some unwieldy regulations, as the FAA and general public are finding out.

The FAA has given itself until September 2015 to come up with real regulations for commercial use of quadcopters in the US. In certain draft documents, it has indicated that it's on the path to doing so, but that path includes some strange provisions -- like requiring a pilot's license (as in, a license to fly real airplanes) in order to take video from a three-pound consumer quadcopter. In December 2014, the FAA began granting experimental licenses to quadcopter and octocopter pilots, virtually all with ties to the motion picture industry. Until the final regulations are published and adopted... well, I suppose "crop dusting" is as good a hobby as any.

Do you have drones in your enterprise plans? Have you begun to experiment (in a totally non-commercial, entirely legal fashion, of course) with any sort of remote-controlled copter? I'd love to hear what you're doing -- and I'll even share some of the footage I've taken with my quadcopter in the comments.