Can we safely live in a world full of drones making data-driven decisions in real time?

While unmanned aircraft technology is not new, the thought of thousands of drones constantly buzzing around our skies still feels like it belongs in a futuristic movie. However, such a sight is closer in time than you may think, and with flying cars among the next steps forward in innovation, it could ultimately be the solution to the pilot crisis that is already impacting the commercial aviation sector.

Drone use is already well established and growing across a vast array of applications, ranging from emergency services including search and rescue and tackling fires through to new innovations in agriculture, construction, humanitarian aid, wildlife preservation and personal security, generating predictions that drones will spawn a USD100 billion industry by 2020.

The enhanced capabilities of drones for the military combined with the increasing demand in domestic and commercial applications are driving international growth of the UAV drones market exponentially in the foreseeable future with a Goldman Sachs report suggesting growth at Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 20% over the next five years.

While the military will remain the largest user of the technology, consumer drone demand will continue to develop, the fastest growth opportunity will come from businesses and civil governments. They’re just beginning to explore the possibilities, but Goldman Sachs predicts they’ll spend USD13 billion on drones between 2016 and 2020.

By 2020, Goldman Sachs expects 7.8 million consumer drone shipments and USD3.3 billion in revenueSource: Goldman Sachs Research

The global commercial drone market is taking shape around applications in a wide range of industries including: agriculture, energy, utilities, mining, construction, real estate, news media, film production and many more. But, the potential is massive with e-commerce, package and fast food delivery yet to fully develop in this exciting new sector, despite household names such as Google and Amazon investing heavily in this application of drones.

Over the past week we have even seen Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) begin flight trails of the Autonomous Air Taxi, a two-seater machine created by German drone firm Volocopter and which could eventually replace ground taxis in the ever-growing metropolis. Dubai has an ambitious goal to have a quarter of all car trips in Dubai operate without a driver by 2030.

The Autonomous Air Taxi features 18 propellers and is powered by nine batteries. It has a flight time capacity of about 30 minutes, allowing passengers to easily be transported between any two points in Dubai. City officials said a successful project would make Dubai the first to host what they call “the world’s first self-flying taxi service,” and help to position it as a leader in the Arab world in innovation.

Investors certainly believe in the future world of drones as technology start-up AirMap, a major contributor to the sector, secured an additional USD26 million through a Series B funding earlier this year. Led by Microsoft Ventures, with additional participation from Airbus Ventures, Qualcomm Ventures (the investment arm of Qualcomm Incorporated), Rakuten, Sony, Yuneec, and existing investors General Catalyst and Lux Capital, the new investment brings AirMap’s total funding to more than USD43 million. This has enabled the company to open new offices in Berlin, Germany and at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California as it seeks to develop a global platform to support drone technology.

AirMap’s goal is simple… it is seeking to make drones part of everyday life by building the airspace services platform to let innovation take flight. The company, co-founded by aviation expert Ben Marcus, who was behind jetAVIVA, the world’s largest light business jet sales company, and Dr Gregory S McNeal, an expert in technology, law and public policy, hopes to fully integrate drones into large-scale industrial applications.

To achieve this drones should be capable of making ‘data-driven decisions in real time’ and the operation should also extend beyond operator’s visual line of sight or should be fully autonomous. Once drones are capable of this they could better plan efficient flights (for both route optimisation and airspace safety), avoid obstacles and truly operate with full potential in urban as well as industrial sites.

AirMap is already the world’s leading airspace management platform for drones, supporting more than 100,000 drone flights per day. The platform provides real-time airspace information and services needed to fly safely in low-altitude airspace and is now embedded into drones, ground control stations, and flight apps by many of the top drone makers, such as DJI, Intel, senseFly, 3DR, and Aeryon Labs. – expanding the technology’s reach throughout the entire drone ecosystem.

The company has also emerged as a leader in worldwide efforts to build technologies for Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM), the regulatory and technological framework that will facilitate data exchange and air traffic control for drones, and eventually, flying cars. More than 125 airports use AirMap’s airspace management dashboard to open surrounding airspace to drones, view past and current drone flights, accept digital flight notices, and communicate with drone operators. It also provides solutions for geofencing, remote identification of drones, and sophisticated in-flight deconfliction.

Expanding upon UTM, trials have recently commenced in Europe in partnership with Switzerland’s skyguide to demonstrate U-space capabilities across the Continent, an important step forward in opening more airspace for commercial drones. U-space is Europe’s vision for the digital infrastructure that will support safe, efficient, and secure access to European airspace for millions of drones. Much like the UTM initiative in the USA, U-space is a collaborative effort to enable situational awareness, data exchange, and digital communication for the drone ecosystem.

New start-ups are popping up frequently to take advantage of opportunities. Last week we saw the launch of Drone Major Group Limited, a new group of complementary businesses which provide new connectivity options to the global drone industry.

Together with SUAS Global, (Surface, Underwater, Air, Space) an online network of drone industry owners, operators, service providers and enthusiasts; Software Major, a software development business, with broad expertise in the development of secure IT systems and Cyber Major, a business offering consultancy services focused on providing cyber risk assessments and resolution services, it has launched Drone Major, a new online portal for the provision of drones and all types of drone related products and services.

MAP – USA, China, Russia, UK and Australia will have the largest drone spending in the FY2017-FY2021 windowSource: DoD, Government of the UK, SIPRI, Defense News, Goldman Sachs Research

Drone Major Group claims to be the first ever company to bring together services dedicated to the rapidly growing drone industry and to increase connectivity globally. “The advance of the drone industry towards full connectivity is inevitable,” says Robert Garbett, the company’s founder and chief executive officer.

“How long this will take will depend on the will of the industry and its ability to develop robust standards; the willingness of regulators to enable new applications; the advancement of technology to tackle the challenges ahead; and the ability of the innovators to understand what technology is available to enable their vision of the future,” he adds.