15 Top Drone Experts Predict the Industry’s Next Big Development

The use of drones and unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) has exploded across the world over the last few years, with new innovations happening seemingly every day. Aerial filming has been the most popular use for drones for some decades, providing truly unique and agile ways of shooting that you really can’t do any other way. It has also formed the basis of a growing market for drones designed for private or personal use, with companies like DJI and Yuneec – backed with huge financial investment – dominating the marketplace.

But there are countless other applications for drones, with more being conceived every day. Farmers from Idaho to Indonesia are using them to aid with their crop intelligence; Amazon, along with other couriers, is close to completing deliveries with drones; and many other uses include in the police and military, remote maintenance, construction inspection, wildlife preservation, and of course, racing – the first US National Drone-Racing competition took place in California last year.

What’s been especially clear over the last year or two is the impact that the ever-growing popularity of drones is having as they inevitably come into contact with the rest of the world. Collisions with airliners, spying complaints, and hostility towards drones have created an important debate in the industry. The FAA in the US, along with other aviation authorities around the world, is still playing catch-up with a new industry that’s stopping for no-one.

The result is an industry still in its infancy, where inventive freedom is colliding with the need for regulation; one with an immense amount of enthusiasm and expertise behind it, but many challenges ahead of it. For this reason, we asked 15 leading experts in all fields of UAVs and UASs what they think 2016 holds for their industry.

Colin Snow | droneanalyst.com | @droneanalyst

At the top of MarketWatch’s 2016 Predictions: The Six Tech Trends That Will Rule is the prediction that virtual reality (VR) will shine at the consumer level and augmented reality (AR) will continue to prove itself in the workplace. Virtual reality (VR) already has proven itself in video, and Trace is betting on that horse with immersive 360-degree applications for use in both commercial and consumer quadcopter drones. But the big money is in AR. Enterprise AR apps reduce workers’ reliance on laptops and tablets where they are cumbersome to use—like in dirty or tight spaces. AR glasses enable field service technicians with a hands-free solution that provides access to visualizations of job-critical information and expert knowledge. SAP has already led the field here. Inspection drones will only add to that benefit since the video feed to the technician is really no different from AR glasses.

Sally French| thedronegirl.com | @TheDroneGirl

Precision navigation -- I've recently been fascinated with the work PRENAV has been doing. It's going to be useful technology for entertainment purposes, like the shows we expect to see coming from Disney. But it's also useful for creating extremely precise maps and 3D reconstructions. It means drones will be able to move faster and more accurate to generate data we need to build structures, inspect power lines or really any other function you would use a drone for.

Matt Waite | mattwaite.com | @mattwaite

By a long, long ways, it's clear rules for commercial operations, particularly in the US. Aviation regulators around the world are struggling to wrap their heads around how this technology fits in with existing aviation regulations, and too many of them are trying to regulate UAS like they're a single engine manned aircraft. All the tech in the world won't do a bit of good without clear, concise and predictable rules for regular UAS use that don't confuse a 3-10 pound hunk of plastic and batteries controlled from the ground and a Cessna with people on board. Civil aviation authorities tend to be a little fad sensitive, so they copy each other. And the lead trend setter is often the FAA in the United States. The FAA says they will have commercial rules this year, and when that happens, you'll see an explosion in use and in the technology backing up that commercial sector.

Scot Refsland| rotorsports.com | @srefsland

I’m not involved with Commercial drones per say, I’m only familiar with the racing side of drones, and the biggest development we’ll see in drone racing is live HD pilot camera views and augmented reality for the spectators.

Christina Engh | uasolutionsgroup.com | @missenghwyoming

We have to look at Kickstarter and Indiegogo (along with other crowd funding sites) to peek under the hood of some of these startups to get a better idea of what the tinkerers are tinkering with behind closed doors. We really look forward to the Yuneeq H, and of course the absorption of Ascending Technologies with Intel tells us that Yuneeq might get a pretty awesome autopilot system (remember that Intel gave Yuneeq $60M in funding, so Intel is vested in helping Yuneeq succeed). The best part of the H is that the price point is under $2K. The other two big tech advances will be swarming and anti-drone technology. Remember that tech also has to do with the NASAUTM effort. Tech isn't just what is in the aircraft, but it is the system by which we fly them, and what ATC system is in place to allow them to operate safely in the NAS. And finally, we need to watch what is going on in the battery market. Look at Elon Musks efforts with electric cars and the Giga Factory, which has lost some traction. I wish there was just one big thing, but drone technology is all over the place, and we have to look outside of just the aircraft, but rather at the holistic system.

Arthur Holland| dronecenter.bard.edu | @WriteArthur

I think that the next major development in drone tech is going to be significant advances in obstacle/collision avoidance systems that are robust, reliable, and scalable for consumer drones. These systems are crucial as they will help assuage public safety concerns around the proliferation of consumer unmanned systems in the airspace.

Brant Hadaway | dronelaw.com | @dronelawdotcom

One thing to watch for in 2016 is whether and to what extent the regulatory environment is influenced by technological innovation.The FAA has been locked in a legacy mindset when it comes to regulating drones - i.e., it has framed drone regulations based on how it has traditionally regulated manned aircraft. This has arguably been the single greatest barrier to innovation and growth in the drone industry, at least, in the United States. One of the FAA's key concerns has been the need for a reliable see and avoid system for drones. While still a long way from being operational, I believe that 2016 will see significant progress toward the development of autonomous see and avoid systems - ones that would potentially network drones with manned aircraft, thus making the skies a unique part of the "internet of things."Assuming that concerns such as reliable anti-hacking can be adequately addressed, I foresee the FAA getting behind further development of such a system as part of a long-term solution to drone regulation and safety.

Alan Perlman | uavcoach.com | @UAVCoach

Certainly expecting a lot of incremental improvement across the industry. Lower prices. Better flight times. More sensors. More M&A and investment activity. More niche applications and better work streams / processes for those applications. I guess if there's one MAJOR development I'd hope to see, it's a clearer regulatory landscape here in the U.S...we're all waiting on an update to NPRM 107 this June, and I'm hoping that the FAA hits that deadline and offers a clear solution for what's next for U.S. commercial drone operators. I also expect to see regulatory maturity in Canada, Australia, and a number of other countries.

Patrick Thévoz | flyability.com | @fly_ability

In terms of technical evolution, the most important challenges revolve around the management of obstacles and the safety: for the drone, infrastructure, and for the people in proximity from the flight zone. At Flyability, we are particularly focusing on these issues and are providing the first collision-tolerant drone, able to fly in contact with structures and bump harmlessly into objects and even people, thus making the flight much easier and not requiring an expert pilot to navigate in complex or confined spaces. This technical evolution will enable a more widespread use of drones in commercial applications and have the commercial segment take off to surpass the consumer market by lowering the barrier to implementing those tools in the current workflow and lowering the associated risks. The second expected important evolution revolve around the use and availability of the data: bespoke software for asset management and predictive analysis of defects will simplify the analysis, and automated flight planning will enable an automatic feeding of these software in the coming years.

Rob Quarantello | spacecitydrones.com | @spacecitydrones

I believe the next major development will be more manufacturers trying to create autonomous drones. Intel showed off their drone at CES being able to dodge trees and follow a biker on a trail and that sparked a lot of interest. I believe this year you will see DJI, 3DR, and Steadidrone attempting the same feat with their select models. Everyone loves to fly, but if you can capture the same shot without having to be skilled at the controls, that adds a whole new level of technology consumers will want to have.

Chris Jackson| jacksonuas.com

I don't think it'll be one big development, it'll be getting all the new technologies working together harmoniously in one commercially viable machine that I think is the next big step. Computer vision, using LiDAR or other sensors, with a high end CPU and clever algorithm, to give the UAV real spatial awareness and positioning. Then working, certified, ADS-B transponders with TCAS to tie it into the national airspace system safely with manned aircraft. High speed, high bandwidth, telemetry and control with redundancy using 3,4 & 5G cell phone networks. There are also other technologies that will pop up soon, cheap & reliable RTK GPS giving cm accurate positioning will be become common place for example. It all adds up to having systems that the regulatory bodies can certify for beyond line of sight operations, which is where the largest advances in the commercial abilities of UAV tech will be found I think.There are systems out there that are close to achieving it, and various parties making massive jumps towards each technology, but I haven't seen anything that has it all working with proven reliability and contained in one system... yet.It'll be very interesting to see where the industry is even in 2 years time!

Jonathan Rupprecht | jrupprechtlaw.com | @RupprechtLaw

I think the next major development is not so much the technology but the ability to legally use the technology that has already been developed. The technology is moving rapidly and the regulators are very slow at keeping up. This is important to understand because companies are developing drones that have capabilities that far surpass what is legally allowed; thus, they are making drones now that can't be flown until the future while currently having overhead costs that canNOT be paid in the future.

Chad Dennis | aerospace.georgiainnovation.org

Here in the USA, just as in the UK, we’ve seen exponential growth in all sectors of unmanned aviation over the past few years. We’ve seen many companies spring up over the past few years, marketing “vaporware”. In 2016, I think we’re going to see the rise of companies that have moved past the vaporware phase. Precision agriculture will be the next big growth area for drone technology. Since 2010, companies have been offering spectral crop imaging services to farmers. But those companies have just scratched the surface of the benefits that can be gained from these images. At this time, those images are used as a stop light chart. Green is good, yellow is so-so, and red is bad. The NDVI scale has so much more to tell us. Why is that red? Was it red last week? Was there a problem in the same spot last year? I think the next big technology leap will be an image post processing software that can answer those questions through a trend analysis with prior images. There’s been enough R&D going on in this area the past few years to have found all the data points needed to develop this software. By the end of the year, I expect to see someone connect all the dots and bring this software to market.

Ben Kreimer | benkreimer.com | @benkreimer

I think the next major development will be obstacle avoidance and other autonomous safety features, as seen with the upcoming Yuneec Typhoon H. The vast majority of drone crashes happen because of operator error or negligence. These situations, which can result in crashes or other safety scares, cast a shadow over the technology, and hinder its integration into society. Incorporating autonomous safety features into drones will help the industry grow because governments and the general public will more readily accept the technology when they realize that it is not a safety threat. That said, I hope that such autonomous safety features do not become overly restrictive (perhaps through political and regulatory pressure) and reach a point where they prevent operators from flying their drones in ways that most people would consider safe and reasonable.

Sebastian Solberg | sebastiansolberg.com | @SebSolberg

The future is very exciting and I believe we've only touched on the surface of what is yet to come. I think the next big thing to hit the market will be drones that are 100% autonomous and can avoid obstacles. There has been lots of talk about products that can do this and the technology has been there for a couple of years but it hasn't yet hit the general public. I believe GoPro who are currently designing a drone and DJI who are the leaders in drone technology will be the ones to really capitalize on this and will bring it to the mass market. I also think drones that can carry people, are self driving and are 100% battery powered will start popping up all over the place in the next 5-10 years! Imagine being able to get to work by drone. How exciting is that, no traffic, no hassle!