For the casual observer, drones still exist mostly at extreme ends of the spectrum: either they’re used for (controversial) warfare, or they’re used as expensive toys on covert missions to photograph sunbathers and celebrities (or sunbathing celebrities). We’ve even seen drones play into the plots of TV shows from Modern Family to Orange is the New Black.
And while reports periodically surface of companies attempting to incorporate drones into their business plans, like Amazon and other online sellers wanting to use them to make deliveries, these reports fade away, and the reality of drones in our daily lives hasn’t yet materialized.
But soon—and perhaps much sooner than we think—drones are likely to be a part of our everyday lives, streamlining and technologically advancing industries from renewable energy to auto insurance.
The auto industry is a driving force in unpiloted vehicle operations—we see evidence of the industry’s commitment to driverless vehicles over and over (and over and over) again. But the auto industry is poised to drive the use of drones, too.
So What is a Drone, Exactly?
Drones are defined as unpiloted aerial vehicles, controlled either remotely or by onboard computers.
Drones, as a concept, aren’t new: they’ve been used in warfare since 1911, writes Space.com, and that’s not counting “bomb-filled balloons” first used in Austria in the mid-1800s. But drone fighters weren’t reliable or effective during the wars of last century; they crashed and exploded unpredictably. Technological developments during the Gulf War in the 1990s aided drone development, and today’s best guess (military secrets and all) is that one-third of the U.S. military’s aircrafts are drones, and at least 50 other countries worldwide use unpiloted aerial vehicles, writes Space.com.
The Drones Are Coming
“There are two phases to technological change: the creation of a technology, followed by a longer and often more difficult period of figuring out how to exploit it,” writes The Wall Street Journal, paraphrasing economics professor Carlota Perez. Drones, they write, have now entered the second phase.
The big reason drone deliveries and other such everyday uses haven’t yet materialized is the Federal Aviation Association’s (FAA) regulations, which are quite stringent. But in early 2015, the FAA made a big change, deciding to allow the use of drones as long as the drone remained in sight of the pilot (so, still no drone deliveries).
But even without the new rules, drones sales have doubled over the past 12 months, reports The Wall Street Journal: they “have already disrupted aerial photography, replacing cranes, helicopters and airplanes on film and TV sets. The breadth of other industries where they are gaining purchase is striking.”
The Auto Industry, Insurance, and Drones
Some insurance companies recently gained FAA approval to use drones for inspections: AIG, State Farm, and USAA all have approval, reports The Wall Street Journal. In April of this year, USAA sent teams with drones to document hail damage in a San Antonio neighborhood. The teams were able to examine the roofs of 12 homes in the neighborhood in just four hours—a task that would’ve take a single adjuster up to 18 hours. Not only will drones save time, they’ll improve safety: the aerial cameras attached to them meant no one had to climb up on any rooftops.
Luxury carmaker Rolls Royce is backing the development of drone ships: freight and shipping boats that would operate without a human crew and would instead be piloted remotely. The company plans to have sea-ready ships by 2020. Just two pilots would be on board the ship, while everything else is controlled remotely via a “holodeck.” Drones with cameras attached would provide remote operators 360-degree views of the ship and the surroundings. Rolls Royce has already begun testing and says of the drone ships, “It’s not if, it’s when.” Eventually, they say, the ships would be completely unpopulated, meaning many safety and comfort additions to ships could be scrapped, making more room for cargo.
The Future of Drones
By 2035, drones are projected to outnumber piloted aircrafts, writes The Huffington Post. As exciting and innovative uses for drones continue to be developed, other industries—like the insurance industry—will need to keep pace.
The insurance industry in general will need to adapt (property damage due to poor piloting and rouge technology will need to be covered), as will governmental regulations, including privacy laws. Among the biggest fears consumers have about telematics devices are privacy issues: if insurers can gather some information, what’s to stop them from gathering lots and lots of information, the argument goes. Drones have the ability to go places people can’t go (or can’t go easily, like rooftops), and we expect this will open the door for debate about what types of data and information insurers are allowed to gather.
And perhaps drones will someday even patrol highways and side streets. But in the meantime, we’ll enjoy the unique perspective of the world that drones allow us to see.