You may have caught site of a drone hovering around a scenic spot accompanied by some goggle wearing person on a control pad (the goggles let them see through the robot's cameras). Ever wondered what the hype was all about? You'd find out from the drone enthusiasts that swarmed to Drones Data X at Santa Cruz's Kaiser Permanente Stadium. A meetup supported by household names Amazon and Facebook.
If you haven't heard Amazon Prime Air wants to zoom package-carrying drones to your doorstep. Crazy? Not at all.
Watch: Delivery Drones
In tight knit cities, the practicality of delivery drones could reel in profitable subscribers. Even reducing expedited delivery costs in the long run.
Problem is the Federal Aviation Agency isn't sold. Drones are heavily restricted in the U.S.A. even though they're a favorite tool for the military. Still there's hope. The Wall Street Journal reports the FAA is at least thinking about allowing delivery drones. Or for that matter any drones flying outside an operator's eyesight.
But the frustrating legal climate didn't stop businesses from showing off the possibilities drones have to offer. The basketball stadium where the event was held was filled with companies touting UAV centric business models.
Drone economy hopefuls
Amazon isn't the only company looking at drone delivery. Flirtey, an 18 month old startup, is also trying to get to a wing-in the business.
"Amazon drones are for Amazon, we are a drone delivery service. Say you're a company and you have a product you'd like to deliver by drone, we would say OK -- we'll work with you." Explained Joe Rinaldi, a computer science engineer with Flirtey.
Rinaldi said that the company has already received some interest from fast food companies. Due to the pesky FAA restrictions Flirtey has been forced to conduct test flights in New Zealand. Like fellow drone companies they're doing business outside the U.S. until UAV laws loosen up. But the company isn't remaining legally declawed. They're working with lawyers based out of Georgetown University.
And the idea really seems viable. This summer, one of Switzerland's biggest logistics companies will be trying its hand at drone delivery. Matternet announced that it will be partnering with Swiss Post and its parent company Swiss WorldCargo for a drone delivery pilot project slated for Summer 2015.
The on-demand economy is gaining traction in the drone world not just with Flirtey. Fluttrbox is a Canadian startup that connects pilots -- and their drones -- to users. The business is already doing well in Canada where they've been operating for the last year and a half.
"It's been really successful, we have worked with a lot of universities, mining companies and agriculture. We're waiting for the FAA of course, and then we can start doing jobs here." Nadia Shiwdin, co-founder of Fluttrbox, shared.
Shiwdin confessed that her company was a bit like Uber for drones. Except she made it clear that they didn't "accept anybody" to join their network as a drone pilot. The pilot's hours flown and their equipment are scrutinized. On-top of that prospective pilots have to pass a safety test.
Drones and data
A big focus of the conference was on data and the role drones can play in the game. Considering a drone is a small robot, that can carry a range of sensors, they make for excellent data gatherers. Agriculture, as Ernest Earon from Precision Hawk described, is currently a big area of business.
Earon went on to say that farmers often have a "very small window" to get information on crops. This is solved by drones which can accurately and quickly get the needed data. Sometimes Precision Hawk might be working with gigantic ten-thousand acre farms -- making drones even more efficient.
Another company using data drones is Inspectools. The business uses the robots to examine energy systems ranging from wind farms to solar plants. Inspectools helps their clients find out if their energy arrays are in working, or not-so working, order.
"We are more focused on the data, managing the data, and presenting the data." Said Gabriel DeVault, R&D Manager for Inspectools. Drones, like in Precision Hawk's case, are another means to valuable data.
In the last decade drone technology has improved dramatically. This is thanks to investment in the business alongside advances in robotics. Some colleges, like University of North Dakota, are even offering curriculum on UAV engineering.
Fathom is a Seattle based company that helps get drone technology to the market quicker. By using 3D printing, they can provide engineers with a model for production -- what Fathom calls rapid prototyping.
"Drones are a big customer, if [the client] has an idea or concept, they can actually 3D print it to get an iteration of the part before they go into mass-production." Said Moe Kress, an Account Manager at Fathom. He voiced that clients can range from startups at Kickstarter phase to corporations.
It makes sense that two groundbreaking (but not yet mainstream) technologies would do business together. So, don't forget to look into 3D printing if you're planning to start a drone company.
Reality is whether a company is using drones to deliver products, inspect farms, or manufacture UAV parts, the U.S. government is behind much of the developed world on drone policy. But the drone revolution is inevitable. The last thing the U.S. wants is to be left out of an economic opportunity.