The world of drones has advanced rapidly, with an increasing number of people buying them for both entertainment and professional purposes.
Given how quickly things have developed, it’s strange to think that it wasn’t too long ago that drones weren’t even available to the public.
When Could The Public First Buy Drones?
The thought of having drones in the hands of the public first became a reality in 2006. That was the year when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued the first commercial drone permits in the US.
2006 is considered a watershed year in the history of drones for two reasons:
First of all, the issuing of permits by the FAA lifted some of the restrictions on consumer drones being flown for recreational purposes.
And secondly, the issuing of permits gave freedom to businesses and professionals who wanted to use drones for various business endeavors. Suddenly, the idea of having a drone deliver products, for example, was no longer farfetched.
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The Reasons for the Rise of Consumer Drones
By 2010, the French company Parrot rolled out their Parrot AR drone. It was the first ready-to-fly drone that could be controlled completely through WiFi.
Not only was the Parrot AR drone a commercial and critical success, it also earned the 2010 CES Innovations Award for Electronic Gaming Hardware.
The consumer drone market has never looked back. There are several drone manufacturers operating today, all competing for a share of the growing market.
The rise of the consumer drone can best be attributed to favorable regulations and the availability of vital tech.
In the years following 2006, hobbyists and enthusiasts quickly took advantage of two separate technologies to make drones a reality: remote controlled aircrafts on the one hand and smartphones on the other.
Many of the earliest drone pilots — and those who work in the drone manufacturing space today — started out by flying small remote controlled aircrafts powered by tiny petrol engines.
These engines were not as elegant as what exist in your modern drone. They were messy, noisy, and shaky at best.
It is thanks to the revolutionary combination of brushless motors and lithium polymer batteries that are used in laptops and smartphones that things could improve. Remote controlled aircraft were finally able to be electrically powered, which made them lighter, quieter, and overall more reliable.
Low cost microcontroller chips made it possible to squeeze a small computer into a box the size of a human palm or smaller. What this led to was the development of open source autopilot software to support fixed wing hobbyist aircrafts.
Microcontrollers also opened the doors to a new type of drone design, one that would have four or more helicopter-style rotors — a quadcopter. This is the design that most drones follow today.
Back in 2005, many research groups had polished the literature on how a drone with four vertical-axis rotors could maintain and control its position and movement. All it required was adjusting the speeds of the various different rotors — and this was much easier to achieve than controlling the normal helicopter.
Experts quickly realized the potential impact of this new design on drone design and functioning. The multi-rotor design allowed for a new way for drones to fly around; hovering on the same spot in the air also became feasible.
Before directed movement and control is feasible, a drone needs to know its orientation and the direction of its movement. The uplifting of the restrictions on recreational drone use coincided with a steep decline in the price or accelerometers.
These accelerometers were used in micro-electromechanical systems as tilt sensors in smartphones and became instrumental in enabling drones have a sense of orientation.
Other technological features which drones owe to smartphones are their affordable high-resolution cameras, and also fast WiFi chips.
The smartphones themselves had easy-to-use touch screens and the requisite processing power for hosting the necessary apps used to control the drones.
It is never a stretch to say that drones rode the wave of the smartphone revolution. Smartphone affiliated tech led to the rise of stable multi-rotor flight that, in turn, led to the all sorts of new possible ways in which drones could be used.
The Reasons for the Rise of Commercial Drones
The drone market can easily be separated into three distinct categories: consumer drones, military drones, and commercial drones.
Consumer drones and commercial drones make up the civilian drone market. This section of the drone market outnumbers the military market, but it is commercial drone market that has been identified as the fastest growing.
More drones are being integrated into wide sweeping fields like agriculture, insurance, infrastructure inspection, mining, and others.
Perhaps the FAA foresaw this trend and decided to uplift restrictions in 2006 when the first commercial drone permits were issued.
However, commercial drones took a while to become the force they are today. In fact, initially, very few businesses applied for licenses after the restrictions were lifted.
That is not the case today, but the popularity of commercial drones which we see today can be put down to three reasons:
First of all, the fierce competition in the consumer market after 2010 led to machines that were increasingly cheaper, more reliable, and more capable every single year.
These were not just downsized versions of military drones or fancy hobbyist contraptions. The UAVs that were being produced in the wake of the drone revolution were solid machines that consistently got better.
Suddenly, there were drones that cost less than $1,000 which were able to hold their positions in strong winds, fly in rainy weather, detect obstacles, and land on their own.
Some drones are capable of responding to hand gestures, can follow their pilot around and even take selfies, while being able to fold into a small backpack.
In many ways, the competition among drone manufacturers led to drones that were more advanced than their much more expensive military counterparts.
The advanced capabilities and durability of these drones meant that they could easily be adapted to commercial purposes.
The innovations in the consumer market were easily carried over into the commercial drone space. This was an exchange akin to what happened between the smartphone market and the consumer drone market, innovations in one sector led to advancements in the other.
Also, many people who initially bought drones to fly for fun quickly realized they could make them work for some extra revenue as well.
The second factor that led to the rise of the commercial drone sector was the rapid production of consumer drones. In many places where regulators had been dragging their feet, the popularity and demand for drones pushed them to seriously consider introducing rules for commercial use.
In the US, for example, the rapid growth in the number of consumer drone available among the public pushed the FAA to roll out the set of rules known as “Part 107” in 2016. Part 107 establishes ground rules and specifies the conditions under which drones can be used for commercial purposes.
Before that time, in the US, pilots required a special waiver in order to use their drones for commercial purposes, and this was costly and time-consuming to obtain.
Having so many drones circulating in the public space forced the prevailing official thought from “commercial drone use is illegal” to “commercial drone use is legal under the following circumstances and conditions”. Many people rushed to start their own drone businesses.
Pretty soon after the FAA, many other countries worldwide loosened the restrictions on commercial drone use, even though they still struggle to keep up with the innovation that is taking place.
The third factor that led to the rise of commercial drones is the rise of major players among drone manufacturers. As the demand for consumer drones rose sharply, so too did the number of manufacturers vying for a piece of the resulting pie.
Ultimately, however, the Chinese manufacturers DJI ended up on top with about 70% of the consumer drone market share. One thing that DJI had going for it was its location in Shenzen. Shenzen remains one of the prime locations where the world’s technology firms go to develop and manufacture hardware.
This proximity to talent and favorable conditions helped DJI to beat out strong rivals, both local and foreign. The company was valued at $8 billion in 2019 and has established itself as a premium brand that is known globally for quality and reliability — something which Chinese firms are not typically known for.
DJI typically prices its commercial drones at a minimum of $999 at the start, and then discounts them when newer models are rolled out. They also make slightly heftier models aimed specifically at industrial users. And for a few thousand dollars, you can get a fully equipped hexacopter drone ready to be deployed towards a wide array of uses.
Many of DJI’s rivals, on the other hand, have either downsized their workforce or decided to join forces with what they could not beat. Parrot, the manufacturer’s of the AR drone that was so popular when they were first released back in 2010, has stopped manufacturing entry-level drones altogether because of the standard of competition.
2006 was a watershed year in the history of drones. But it will not remain the only one — it may not even be the most important year as far as consumer drones are concerned.
As drone innovations continue to fly ahead, we may come across advances that change the field completely, forever altering what we once thought to be possible with drones.
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