Forget the doubters, commercial drones are here to stay

While obviously there are a lot of technological, legal and regulatory hurdles to overcome before we ever see a fleet of Amazon Prime Air octocopters taking off from distribution centers across America and making door-to-door deliveries, the momentum behind the commercial drone revolution continues to build. There are now over 25,000 DIY drone enthusiasts in America, and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) prototypes already exist for a number of commercial applications. By some estimates, commercial drones could boost the U.S. economy by $13.6 billion and create 70,000 new jobs within just a few years. Once the FAA finally rules on potential applications for commercial drones (expected in late 2015), it will be time for the training wheels to come off the domestic drone bandwagon.

As wacky and futuristic as Amazon’s vision for Prime Air may sound, it’s actually an idea that dates back to at least 2009. FedEx, for example, has even tentatively explored plans for a giant fleet of commercial unmanned drones to deliver packages. That’s right — the entire FedEx fleet would be comprised of robotic drones. These unmanned delivery vehicles would be more along the lines of massive 777 cargo freighter drones than Amazon octocopters, but you get the idea: the logistics business is looking for a faster, cheaper delivery model and drones are going to be involved somehow. There’s even been talk of drone fleets flying in bird-like formations over cities and then disassembling as they go about their final delivery routes.

In order to think about drones the way Jeff Bezos thinks about drones, just imagine any delivery service being reinvented as a drone delivery service, where robots replace humans.  In densely populated urban areas, takeout orders are one example of how consumer drones could revolutionize different business models. In early 2012, for example, there was much speculation about “TacoCopters” eventually being able to deliver tacos to young tech workers in the San Francisco Bay Area using a fleet of quadricopters. But think about it — any urban area full of bike messengers and pizza delivery guys could benefit from the 30 minutes or less approach of a Jeff Bezos. At some point, it’s possible to imagine going out to a baseball game or music festival on a warm summer day, pressing a button on your smartphone, and having a drone deliver a nice cold beer to your seat within minutes. In South Africa, for example, they already have beer drones.

So what other business models might profit from consumer drones? Imagine personal security drones buzzing around your home, keeping it safe while you’re away on vacation and capable of interacting with police and fire department first-responders. There’s also been talk of how drones could lead to massive new efficiencies in the agricultural sector by giving farmers and ranchers the ability to monitor vast areas. Oil and gas exploration teams could deploy drones to survey remote areas. Real estate agents could use them to create videos of new properties on the market. And, of course, Hollywood film directors could create new types of action shots using drones capable of recording video from unique angles.

And you wouldn’t even have to be a Hollywood director to take advantage of this last capability. What if, for example, you were to combine the GoPro video revolution (recently featured by Anderson Cooper on “60 Minutes” in November) with the technological capabilities of a drone, such that you had a personal GoPro video drone following you around and doing your bidding when it wasn’t otherwise filming your every move? That might sound insane, but that’s the vision from former Wired editor Chris Anderson, who recently landed $30 million in VC financing for his drones company, 3D Robotics, and has been at the forefront of advancing something he’s calling an “autonomous personal robot.” As Anderson recently outlined in a cover story for Wired, the “autonomous personal robot” is essentially a “pet bird” that follows you around wherever you are.

And that’s not all. Commercial drone technology is an exponential technology, meaning that we’ll continue to see massive improvements in what they’re capable of. They’ll shrink in size and become more powerful with every passing year. Once the FAA rules on commercial drones in 2015, we’ll likely see an explosion of commercial drone concepts, as those 25,000 DIY drone hobbyists in America are able to unlock their innovation in pursuit of new business ideas. Drones will no longer be an underground hobbyist activity.

In the end, that might just be the future that Jeff Bezos envisions — he may not really plan to fly all those Amazon octocopters, but he’s laying the groundwork for innovation so that Amazon can benefit from all the size and scale advantages once operating a commercial drone fleet becomes economically feasible and legally possible. One thing is certain, though — Jeff Bezos just raised the bar for what to expect at next year’s TED conference. Flying robot swarms are so 2012.

Related: Rounding up the Amazon drone skepticism

And below, our friends at PostTV discussed what we could do with drones:

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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