The Lily drone is one Illinois tech roboticist Matthew Spenko suggests keeping an eye on at CES (Credit: Lily)
The Lily drone is one IIT roboticist Matthew Spenko suggests keeping an eye on at CES (Credit: Lily)

The buzz at CES in Las Vegas this week won’t just be heard from the crowd.

Drones are likely to be one of the annual tech showcases’ biggest newsmakers in 2016, with over 100 drones expected to be introduced at CES. There’s also a drone policy and innovation track and a marketplace devoted to unmanned systems at the conference. But given drones’ explosion in popularity, it can be hard to make sense of what is news and what is just hype.

Matthew Spenko (Courtesy of Illinois Institute of Technology)
Matthew Spenko (Courtesy of Illinois Institute of Technology)

Illinois Institute of Technology engineering professor Matthew Spenko studies and builds drones in the IIT Robotics Lab, and is currently working on a pilot project with ComEd to use IIT drones to survey downed power lines.

To help make sense of the drone overload to come at CES, he talks what drones to keep an eye on, what industries are poised to get a drone makeover, and what regulations will rub up agains the drone innovation ahead.

What’s new: autonomous drones

Currently most drones aren’t necessarily robots,”they’re the aerial version of a remote control car at this point,” Spenko said. But that could soon change as more and more drones begin to implement autonomous features into their systems, such as an auto-follow mechanism. One drone Spenko said he has been following closely is the Lily, a drone that will starts hovering simply by being thrown in the air and then tracks the user as they, for example, ski down a mountain or kayak on a river. “It’s like a GoPro up in the sky for yourself,” he said. (Lily just received a 2016 Innovation Award from CES).

Though there are promised features in many drones he isn’t sure will be inviting for consumers, such as a feature where the drone can land in your hand (“I don’t think I’d want anything with propellers spinning that fast that close to my face,” Spenko said), offering new tech means consumer drones are moving forward. “From an academic standpoint it is interesting to see some robotic technologies actually getting into the consumer marketplace,” he said.

What’s ahead: rise of the drone middleman

Consumer drones are already taking off, with UAVs like Lily already making waves at CES. But Spenko sees the B2B drone industry growing next. “There will be companies that pop up that hire out their services to other companies,” he said.

This means that one company could go through the effort of getting employees certified to fly drones, register their drones, then hire out their services to industries that might not want to go through the due process to use drone technology. For example a real estate company might hire a drone contractor to survey a clients’ condo on the 35th floor of a building.

What’s a hurdle: regulation and bureaucracy 

It shouldn’t be the wild west out there flying these drones

Though drone innovation is at an all time high, drone regulation has also increased. All drones must be registered with the FAA (or you face a stiff fine), you can’t fly a drone within five miles of an airport or nearby a stadium, and you should be in visual contact with a drone at all times (there are extra rules if you’re using a drone for commercial purposes). Some regulation is important, but it can be slow going Spenko said. “It shouldn’t be the wild west out there flying these drones,” he pointed out. “I would also love to see the FAA move at a much faster pace.”

One aspect he anticipates will have to change before drones meet their full potential is the requirement users keep visual eye contact with a drone at all times. “I think some of the really big benefits of using drones to surveying land, to investigate power outages…finding someone who is lost…all these cases really really benefit if you don’t have fly line of sight,” he said.

Image credit: Lily