As Plato said, necessity is the mother of invention. It is also the mother of adoption, as the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates with healthcare, education, additive manufacturing, communications, and — commercial drones.
Many factors contribute to the adoption of a new product or technology, but necessity is one of the most significant. Economic textbooks abound with discussions on relative benefits, adoption costs, and various societal, environmental, and market factors. However, extraordinary times offer another path: necessity changes our perception of risk, prioritizing experimentation and leading to discovery and accelerated adoption. This pattern emerges in major disruptive events, and we have correspondingly seen it play out for aviation in both world wars. Likewise, we may now be witnessing it for commercial drones in the coronavirus pandemic.
Prior to World War I, the nascent aviation industry was facing significant skepticism worldwide. The industry was beleaguered by a limited market and slowed technology development due to patent disputes. The airplane itself was minimally capable; instruments were primitive, aeronautical charts did not exist, and there were few navigational aids.
As the war started, combatants recognized the need for aerial observation and took to the skies to experiment with this potential, despite numerous risks. This catalyzed rapid improvements, experience gained, and led to the discovery of use cases that persist to present day: reconnaissance, air combat, ground attack, transport, sea operations etc. Driven by urgency and supported by massive U.S. government appropriations, an industry was born and thousands of airplanes were built. Experience in the war made the airplane’s usefulness much better understood and showed glimmers of its future commercial potential, paving the way to passenger, mail, and cargo transport at scale (Figure 1).
World War II proved to be another major inflection point. The need to outrun, outmaneuver, and outclimb the opponent triggered further experimentation and brought significant progress in piston, turbine, and rocket engines, the first production helicopter, and early unmanned air vehicles. Imagination seemed unlimited, resulting in numerous “firsts”: the first ballistic missile, first rocket-powered combat aircraft, and first rocket-powered vertical takeoff interceptor. There was even an attempt to develop pigeon-controlled guided bombs. Production increased exponentially to the point that it took only five hours to make a large transport aircraft. After the war, commercial aviation flourished as society enthusiastically sought to apply this progress and know-how across the economy (Figure 2).
Shifting to today, as the COVID-19 pandemic shakes the world out of its status quo, we see a similar pattern triggered by an existential necessity. While nowhere near the scale of global wars, the coronavirus pandemic is nonetheless a battlefield. Instead of outmaneuvering and outrunning the opponent, there is a need to stay ahead of the virus. Instead of protecting troops on the ground, there is a need to protect people from the virus. This necessity is galvanizing focus, calling once again for experimentation while also removing regulatory barriers, and might be remembered as a key catalyst for the proliferation of commercial drones.
Around the world, necessity has spawned rapid experimentation with drones. Equipped with cameras and loudspeakers, drones are serving as a force multiplier to authorities in enforcing lockdowns, broadcasting information, and monitoring citizen movements. “Pandemic drones” are using sensitive thermal cameras and computer vision to detect people who cough, sneeze, or show signs of fever. Drones retrofitted from agriculture are spraying disinfectant and shining ultraviolet light to sanitize surfaces. Drones are also reasserting their value in transporting medical samples and essential supplies.
This use case experimentation is producing interesting insights. First, we are discovering efficiencies and cost savings in the traditional business sense. Chinese drone maker XAG claims that a single disinfecting drone is equivalent to 100 workers in terms of sprayed area per day. Drones delivering medical samples, food and other essential supplies in China produced similar remarkable time savings and with less human contact/transmission risk.
More importantly, we are discovering a gradual demystification of drones as we move past psychological barriers, overcoming habit and inertia and becoming open to trying something new. The pandemic offers a rare window of opportunity for users to take to the skies and learn how to best use, integrate, and scale drones in an environment with temporarily lowered regulatory barriers — accelerating what would otherwise take months or years. This is a critical step toward adoption. As operators gain confidence in new capabilities, original hesitation and “risk of the unknown” turn into enthusiasm looking for where to apply these new capabilities next. This, in turn, brings more confidence to the public, the markets, the innovators, and investors, further fueling progress.
However, sustaining this momentum on the other side of the pandemic will depend on additional product improvements and addressing barriers to adoption. Enabling technologies and product-market fit need to improve in order to increase utility and returns on investment. Because deploying drones is a systems engineering challenge, this will be as much a creative process as an analytical one. Privacy, noise, and safety concerns need to be addressed. Products and services need to integrate seamlessly into existing workflows or create and enable new ones. Successful drone companies will abstract away the complexity and focus on the ultimate customer needs. Just as an aspiring driver does not need thousands of parts and assembly instructions, she needs a car — and sometimes just a ride to her destination.
A key barrier to adoption is the systems and integration challenge standing in the way of unlocking the full potential of drones, particularly for flight beyond visual line of sight, over people, and at night. The systems to solve this depend upon regulatory accommodations to enable their development and refinement through operations and experience, and likewise, the regulations enabling new operations require safety assurances of these systems. New frameworks for defining and assessing system safety for drone operations are necessary. Working through this mutual dependency in a way that solves for all stakeholders and for the greater good is instrumental to our success. Times of necessity present opportunity and also raise the already high stakes — those who move decisively here will gain industrial and strategic leadership.
The COVID-19 pandemic came with a silver lining for the adoption of commercial drones. Necessity drove us, leading to use case experimentation and accelerated discoveries, supported in some countries by a relaxed regulatory environment. Throughout its history, aviation technology has come up against barriers. One of them was the sound barrier, a seemingly unassailable frontier that led many experts to believe that the supersonic environment is unforgivingly violent. Supersonic flight was ultimately found to be surprisingly serene — it’s the transition that was challenging. As commercial drones navigate a critical transition period of their own, we will find similar tranquility on the other side of the adoption barrier.