Drones set to take off in Europe before US -- no thanks to Amazon

Experts in autonomous aerial vehicles suggest Amazon and Google won't be the ones to pilot the industry to new heights.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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Vanessa Hand from CNET en Español meets a friendly drone -- but the drone industry still has a lot of problems to work out. Josh Miller/CNET

DUBLIN -- High flyers in the world of drones reckon the industry is set to take off in Europe before it does in the US -- but Amazon and Google could be left grounded.

At the Web Summit technology conference here on Tuesday, a panel headlined "Game of Drones" discussed the future of flying robots. The panel consisted of Christian Sanz, co-founder and CEO of Skycatch, which uses aerial robots to gather data for mining, construction and other companies; Jonathan Downey, boss of Airware, which develops autopilot software for drones; and Jay Bregman, recently departed co-founder of e-hailing app Hailo.

Drones becoming a commercial reality "will probably happen in Europe before it does in the US," said Bregman. Bregman also tipped his hat to the home crowd at the event in Dublin, telling the audience he believes "Ireland is poised to be the market leader...it has one of the most advanced registration processes."

Bregman has only recently shifted his focus from taxis to drones, but he's already spotted one of the key challenges of the fast-growing but still nascent drone industry: the name. "It's a terrible name," said Bregman, highlighting the negative connotations and perceptions that have developed around what he prefers to call "autonomous flying robots."

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As well as privacy concerns of drones flying and taking pictures in places we couldn't go before, there are security concerns like drones going where they shouldn't. "We don't want them flying into French nuclear power stations," said Bregman, referring to a mysterious spate of unidentified drone flights over nuclear sites in France. But he believes security and privacy problems "can be solved through code and instantiated in law."

Military vehicles like this Predator UAV may give drones a bad name in the public consciousness. General Atomics

Autonomous vehicles are already in use -- from military strikes to emergency medical aid to mining companies buying paintball-armed drones to control rioting workers. But drones are still new to the public consciousness, and often in the shape of fun remote-controlled quadcopters delivering packages from Amazon and Google -- or even Facebook, which is building drones as part of its effort to expand Internet access around the world.

Sanz admits that when big companies like Amazon and Google make a noise about the nascent industry "it's helping us all," but he believes the industry will be built by "scrappy little companies" rather than the big names. Bregman goes even further, harking back to the PC revolution when he describes Google and Amazon as the IBMs of the new industry.

"It remains to be seen how serious their commitment is," he said. "We're yet to see who are the real leaders in this space; It remains to be seen if those companies will be outgunned in the same way they outgunned other companies thirty years ago to get where they are today."

In fact, the industry around drones is growing in different ways -- not just the hardware of the drones themselves but also the software that controls them. Downey identifies an "explosion" of different companies in the sector, while Bregman predicts the industry will grow even faster than the PC revolution. But Sanz suggests that many bigger companies that could use drones -- like the construction, mining and agriculture companies Skycatch works with -- are "still testing these things, they're not buying them."

"We spend months working with these companies trying to work out how we can fit drones into their workflow," he said.

And of course, any young industry faces the possibility of lawmakers cracking down. Bregman's suggestion that Europe is ahead of the US isn't an unreasonable assertion considering US aerial watchdog the Federal Aviation Administration imposes a near-blanket ban on the commercial use of drones, with only a few exemptions like the movie industry. No wonder OK Go went to Japan to make their drone-filmed music video.

"I worry about...regulations in both directions," said Downey. "I'm worried about countries where there's complete lawlessness, and I worry equally about the other end of spectrum like this commercial ban in the US, that we'll end up with regulations that are so oppressive that only the oldest companies will be able to push enough paper and dot enough 'I's to use this technology."

"We share the same goals as regulators," pointed out Bregman, who wants to "introduce robots to society."

Downey admits that the safety issues around autonomous flying vehicles are more complex that other types of vehicle, such as self-driving cars. "Most autonomous robots can stop," he said. "An autonomous lorry or an autonomous bus can pull over and stop -- but that's not the case with a flying autonomous vehicle."

However, that extra complexity doesn't mean regulators should overcompensate by insisting drones be piloted by an actual human being, the panel argue. Bregman concedes he wouldn't mind a world of "trained pilots that can oversee a large number of drones," while Downey argues pilots would defeat the point of drones. "We want this to be a very simple tool for people," he said. So when, for example, you need to inspect a roof, using a drone to do so should be as simple as "grabbing a ladder, rather than calling the FAA."

In order to tackle some of these concerns, Downey says he is in partnership with NASA to develop an aircraft management system that can handle the larger number of smaller aircraft than the current air traffic system is designed for.

Sanz argues this simplicity is safer in the grand scheme of things. He gives the example of construction sites in California where drones take aerial pictures of projects as they grow. CAD files of the project are then overlaid on the images to make sure the building is being built correctly. "In the past you'd send 50 people in to take pictures, and that's less safe, because you've got dozers driving around."

But even if regulation does crack down on drones, it doesn't mean the end of the industry. "Companies are going to be born out of the safety side of things," predicted Sanz. He thinks of the coming of drones as a practical matter.

"We don't see ourselves as being in construction," he said. "We see ourselves as data-gatherers...and drones are the fastest way to gather data. If there was a faster way to gather data we'd do that instead."