Google, Verizon and others are partnering with NASA on an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) traffic management scheme. Microsoft has been working with universities on drone-enabled mosquito traps in an effort to stall infectious diseases from spreading. Cisco has shown off drones whose cameras feed into the company’s collaboration technologies. And AT&T, IBM and Intel have all demonstrated advanced drone-based research. All of this activity by enterprise IT vendors in the commercial drone field is a far cry from what was being done — or at least being publicly discussed — back in late 2014, when our efforts to get such vendors to share their ambitions largely went unheeded.
Not that you could blame the vendors for being gun-shy. After all, the legal landscape for commercial drones has been murky at best, with the Federal Aviation Administration scrambling to roll out rules designed to allow hobbyists and commercial enterprises to benefit from flying drones but also to prevent these devices from smashing into people, structures and airplanes. High profile drone-based delivery systems floated by the likes of Amazon and Google have already become cultural phenomena, but since late 2014, the FAA also has granted 5,000-plus Section 333 exemptions to organizations seeking to experiment with or use drones for less publicized commercial purposes, such as aerial photography by realtors, surveillance by various entities and pipeline monitoring by energy companies. Among those nabbing exemptions have been enterprise tech companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Qualcomm, and numerous others have been able to employ drones via partners in the aviation field (see Infographic below for more data on this). It’s no wonder that enterprise IT vendors are seeking to get in on the action, even if that means not so much building drones themselves, but rather providing supporting technology, from network connectivity to network management to collaboration tools to big data analysis. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being pumped into drone-related startups, and the investment arms of companies such as Intel, Qualcomm and Verizon are among those leading the way (Drone companies like Airware and DJI are launching venture arms, too!). Market watcher Grand View Research says the global UAV market will be worth more than $2 billion by 2022.
“Drones are just a mobile platform that carries sensors and so basically, they are another IoT platform,” says Gerald Van Hoy, a senior research analyst at Gartner who tracks semiconductors, robotics, drones and more. “Anything you can think of that is IoT related as far as connectivity or software will probably bleed into the drone space. The more sensors you put on these, the more data has to be collected off of them, has to go to the cloud, has to be stored and processed.”