Humans and drones: A dream team, or a case of ‘man vs machine’?
28 October 2020
When new technology is deployed in the workplace, it ultimately changes how people do their jobs.
Workplace automation is a megatrend affecting most markets. Businesses of all kinds are familiar with automation and robotic process automation in the workplace. Some reports claim that automation technology could take over as many as 800 million jobs by 2030.
Drones are no exception, they are being deployed for everyday operations in a variety of sectors. But unlike some emerging technologies, drones currently have a more complementary relationship with people.
Rather than replacing human activity, drones are augmenting capabilities and enhancing collaborative intelligence. There are two ways to look at how drones and humans work together. One is through the current augmentation stage and the second is looking to the future, to a time of greater automation.
Drones augmenting what people can do
We’re already at the augmentation stage with drones actively complementing and extending our capabilities.
- Drones are being used extensively to inspect structures and locations that are difficult or dangerous for humans to access, giving their human operators a safe aerial perspective.
- The emergency services are using drones to help in life-or-death scenarios. From the fire service using drones for risk assessments in burning structures, to coastguard and lifeboat services augmenting searches or using drones with powerful lighting to aid night time rescues.
- Drones are proving invaluable in supporting natural disaster relief efforts. Fitted with thermal imagery cameras, drones can help detect and locate survivors. They can also assist workers in calculating the number of displaced people in need of shelter.
- Drones are being used in numerous public safety trials in parts of the UK. The Fleetlights pilot scheme is exploring how drones can help pedestrians navigate dark country roads by offering ‘personal street lights’ to reduce accident risk.
The case for increasingly autonomous drones
The next inflection point for drones will arise with autonomous UAVs that can ‘see’ and fly intelligently. This opens the possibility for drones to play a greater role, with less human interaction.
Improvements will include AI for obstacle avoidance, and geofencing, meaning drones can be programmed to avoid pre-set spatial coordinates, such as restricted airspace around airports or military installations.
Again, there are many possible applications for autonomous UAV technology:
- Amazon and other retailers are performing trials to see whether delivery drones can replace van drivers to perform the ‘last mile’ of deliveries.
- The military is already using drones in dangerous missions to reduce risk for human pilots.
- Search-and-rescue operations could benefit from drones that rely less on skilled pilots, instead responding to arm gestures and even facial expressions.
As drone autonomy increases, the roles that humans have will also evolve. Future jobs will include the repair, maintenance, programming and piloting of drones. Human labour will be diverted to creating value from the outputs of drone data collection activities such as analysis and modelling. Displacement, not replacement, is more likely to be the result of a future drone ecosystem.
There are barriers to this next step; autonomous piloting is not quite there yet. The regulatory landscape remains hard to navigate and there are significant societal and cultural issues to overcome. But while these will take time to develop, the opportunities in a drone-augmented landscape are abundant.
As Mary Cummings, a professor and drone expert at MIT and Duke University, told ABC News: “Ultimately, drones will create more jobs than they replace, they will save lives and they will give us capabilities we only dream about.”