Until recently, drones have tended to be either highly regulated, or barely regulated at all. By and large it has been a story of extremes: either drones have been deployed in specific circumstances by the military, or flown at the weekend by hobbyists in their back gardens.

That's set to change in the coming months and years thanks to a combination of incoming legislation, a growing desire to deploy drones in the commercial sector and new international standards.

drone image credit istock malifor
iStock/malifor

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New regulations

Over the Easter weekend new laws on drones came into effect in the UK, including a requirement for users to sit a safety awareness test for drones weighing over 250g and new powers for the police to seize drones where necessary.

The government is expected to introduce the Drone (Regulation) Bill imminently, aimed at creating more defined differentiation between hobby and professional use. Owners will be required to register drones, to help reduce their use for illicit purposes.

"This will provide more clarity, which is important if this sector is to grow. It's paramount to get social acceptance for the technology moving forward," Elaine Whyte, drone lead at PwC, tells Techworld.

As well as new regulations, we can also expect to see new standards emerging from the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), with the UK national group set to decide which standards to adopt and which to adapt, according to Robert Garbett, chief executive of Drone Major Group.

These standards will provide guidance on everything from product safety (e.g. what happens in the event of battery or rotor failure) to training, competence, privacy, risks and etiquette.

Early adopters

A number of early adopter organisations are piloting or rolling out drones, particularly within sectors as diverse as: real estate, construction, infrastructure, the emergency services, filming and photography, Garbett says.

Drones are already being used by the UK Border Force and Ordnance Survey for mapping and data purposes, he says. Beyond the UK, drones are being used to deliver healthcare supplies in Rwanda, Whyte adds.

The main business benefits associated with drones are typically cost reduction and dispute resolution, according to Whyte.

"If you're talking about maintaining large structures, you often have to shut down the function to send someone to check what's gone wrong. You can get insights much quicker with drones. They can also provide a golden record to check activity and resolve legal claims," she explains.

One use case that has received a lot of attention is for deliveries, partly thanks to Amazon's 'Prime Air' initiative to get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less using drones.

However experts are sceptical. "People are realising that it isn't a very useful way to use the technology, especially in the UK," Garbett says.

Risks

Despite growing adoption, the fledgling UK commercial drone sector does face a number of risks. Ensuring safety and privacy are both paramount, but it's also crucial not to 'over-regulate' the industry. One issue for companies is how quickly drones need to be replaced – typically once every 18 months at the moment.

Another issue is public perception. Garbett defines drones as "a vehicle, ship or aircraft which is remotely or autonomously controlled" but says people generally think it is purely confined to "a four rotor thing that flies in the sky".

People often voice privacy concerns, for example around the idea of a drone flying over their garden. In response, the government should work to reduce the personal use of drones in built up areas and increase powers to bring them down, trace the owner and take action, he says.

"I wouldn't mind if they banned personal use of drones, though I know people like using them. I think it's a bit of a fad," he adds.

Looking forward, the industry will continue to grow and explore different applications of the technology, as regulations help to inspire further confidence, according to Whyte.

One trend will be the use of drones for transportation – for example transporting people via air. Another will be companies integrating lots of drones to complete one task, Garbett says.

"But because of the speed of this sector - it is developing so fast - the standards are evolving as we are writing them," he admits.