Drone registrations continue to climb at the start of 2017. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, 670,000 drones have been registered since the agency implemented its national drone registration system in Dec. 2015. Almost 40,000 of them came in the last two weeks of 2016, on the strength of robust drone sales during the holiday season.
Predictably, drones have been a hot topic at the 2017 edition of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. “Selfie drones” equipped with high-megapixel cameras, underwater drones and drones branded as part of the “Star Wars” universe were all on display at the massive annual event.
There is no doubt that drones will be a high-profile piece of technology throughout 2017. What can we expect in terms of technical refinement and further adoption, though? Here are a few trends to keep an eye on this year:
1. Ongoing issues with drone safety and losses
More than 2 million drones were sold in the U.S. in 2016, or three times the number of official FAA registrations as of Jan. 2017, according to the Consumer Technology Association lobby group. The discrepancy can be explained in part by the high number of drones that are lost or damaged during their initial flights.
CNBC recently chronicled several such episodes. New drone users may be surprised at the power and speed of their machines, both of which are difficult to manage for individuals with no pilot training. An entire hashtag, #dronecrashmas, popped up on Twitter on Christmas Day to chart incidents involving unmanned aerial vehicles.
“The cameras built into today’s drones are among their most valuable assets.”
2. Superior camera technology in a wider range of models
The cameras built into today’s drones are among their most valuable assets, as they capture photos and video footage to help with anything from a live sports broadcast to emergency first response. It is no surprise that drone makers are focusing on improvements in this area, much like smartphone manufacturers have made camera iterations the centerpiece of their updates.
For example, some models are adding thermal-imaging cameras to go along with 1080p HD cameras. This combination could be useful for many tasks, including identifying wildlife, monitoring irrigation systems and locating the hot spots in an array of solar panels. The company Flir showed off a drone containing these cameras, called Duo, at CES 2017.
Drones are set for a big year in 2017.
3. Machine learning as an enhancement to drone awareness
What if a drone runs into unexpected conditions during a flight, such as another UAV or a wall or building? Qualcomm attempted to answer this question at CES by showing off its Snapdragon Flight Drone Platform, which injects machine learning capabilities into drone models.
Machine learning may enable drones to overcome the limitations of technologies such as GPS that are weak indoors. It works by pulling in information about current situations and using it to condition the drone for similar scenarios in the future.
4. A pivot to logistics
The potential uses of drones in logistics fulfillment has not been lost on giants such as Amazon, which famously floated the drone-based Amazon Prime Air as a proof-of-concept. Other firms including DHL, as well as IBM, GE and even Uber, have looked into the possibility of using drones as at least one link in the larger chains of their respective delivery strategies.
One thing to watch will be how regulations evolve in terms of how high these delivery drones can fly and the ways in which they could potentially interact with commercial aircraft. With more drones hitting the skies, it will be critical that businesses strike a balance between tapping the potential of drones and ensuring a safe environment for human pilots.