Have We Reached Peak Drone?


Remember that IBM commercial back around 1998 that had two executives sitting in the corner office? One is reading The Wall Street Journal and says to the other, “It says here we have to be on the Web.” His companion asks why. “It doesn’t say,” says the WSJ reader. The spot perfectly captured the confusion and agita of the times as businesses tried to figure out an Internet marketing plan or just struggled to decide if they even needed one.

And that’s sort of where we are with the drone business in early 2016. So it was no surprise that Lufthansa announced a partnership with Chinese drone giant DJI to produce drones for the survey and inspection market. Did someone in a corner office at Lufthansa decide, hey, we really gotta get into this? Probably.

As I understand it, DJI will do the hardware and Lufthansa will lend its expertise in operating fleets of Airbus and Boeing airliners which, I’d venture to say, has about zilch to do with flying drones. But never mind; the thinking seems to be that you slap a Lufthansa logo on an Inspire, the cachet is enough to make a would-be customer swoon with confidence that he’ll get his power lines, wind turbines or bridges inspected by the best. Also, never mind there are about a gazillion companies already providing such services as the FAA issues more COAs and other countries open up the dronesphere.

This frenzy is typical of any new technological innovation, where hundreds of companies can’t rush in fast enough to get a piece of the pie and can’t exit fast enough when the pie turns out to be a muffin. In other words, the shakeout is inevitable. When I covered the NBAA show a year ago, there was a panel on drones and the emerging market. One of the panel participants—I forget which one—made several comments that he wasn’t seeing the applications for all these drone types and technologies being proposed if not rolled out. He made the comment a couple of times, but I don’t think many were listening. When I walked the floor at the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems a few months later, several booth-standers said the same thing. Still, they plod forward because that’s how business works.

In covering aviation, it’s always fascinating to me how unmanned systems encroach on everything. I’ve been working on a big print piece on electric aircraft and at every turn, manufacturers have or are planning an unmanned version of their electric airplane. Four years ago, it was a China marketing plan; now it’s a drone plan. Even engine manufacturers are doing drones, albeit in a market that’s small volume and not necessarily poised to grow exponentially, despite what some are claiming.

One of the most interesting examples of this surfaced in a conversation I had with Stephan Wolf, founder of e-volo. You may recognize the company as the innovative reinventor of the helicopter with its Volocopter. It’s one of the few early electric projects that gets the idea that distributed electric power really does rewrite the design book. E-volo is partnered with a company called Ascending Technologies, whose expertise is drones. You can easily see the connection, but e-volo is really interested in manned flight.

Intel recently bought Ascending, which owns a share of e-volo. What’s the connection? Intel wants to make chips for drones and is making noise like the Volocopter should be one. Echoing what I heard at that industry panel, Wolf says he isn’t sure what the application would be. Not sure I do, either. Wolf is determined that the Volocopter will fly manned this year, so that’s his focus. Me, I want to fly the thing myself.

Since I’m under no obligation to connect what I write here with reality and being perfectly capable of going from the sublime to the ridiculous at the speed of a quad prop tip, I looked up how many chips Intel makes and it’s on the order of a half billion a year. Should we assume drone chips will be a significant business for Intel? The logic is inescapable.

Perhaps you should march right into your corner office and demand to know what your company’s drone plan is. Never mind if you make tire irons or lawn chairs, you need a drone plan to fill in for that killing you were going to make selling airplanes in China.

If you hurry, you can get into this business on the fifth floor, sixth tops.

Drones in Parks

Since 2014, the National Park Service has had a ban on flying drones in any of the U.S. parks. Very few people know the ban even exists because the park service has done a crummy job of promulgating it. It’s supposedly a temporary policy while the NPS figures out a longer-term plan. Last week, I got an email from a reader busted for operating a drone in one of the parks. For privacy and retribution purposes, he has asked me not to name it. How did he get busted? Evidently from a park ranger surfing YouTube, who saw his video and pursued an enforcement case.

I can’t think of a better example of government overreach and capricious enforcement than this. Well, there is one that’s worse. One drone operator got tasered. Isn’t it time to take a deep breath about drone hysteria?The reader who wrote me is facing more than $1000 in fines and administrative costs and that’s after mitigation. Not all of the cases are handled this way. The cooler heads are doing what they should do, politely reminding people of the policy and asking them to desist. Fair enough until the policy is worked out.

And what should the policy be? I can certainly understand and sympathize with people who want the freedom not to be annoyed by a quad buzzing around at dawn. I wouldn’t either. On the other hand, I can make a First Amendment argument that camera-equipped drones are indeed a form of expression and people ought to be allowed to use them on what is, after all, the people’s land.

I would propose a compromise that allows drone usage in certain areas at certain times of the day by permit. This would keep a lid on excesses while not denying the use of a technology that’s going to be with us whether NPS likes it or not.

Government regulations have a tendency to be kneejerk, one-size-fits-all dictums because government agencies always find themselves betwixt and between. I’m sympathetic, but just as the FAA has to adapt to rapidly evolving technology, so does every other agency. They’ll need to figure out something and “thou shalt not” is not a solution, in my view.