Monday, September 23, 2013

Drones, journalism, and the peak of inflated expectations

It's a story that's been repeated time and time again with emergent technology. Researchers publish some new breakthrough, and the press grabs hold of the news release and begins extrapolating stories about how the new tech could revolutionize our lives. Expectations build as ideas bounce within the media echo chamber, pitchmen evangelize audiences at the trendy tech conferences, and venture capitalists make power plays in the market.

Everyone wants a piece because the sky is the limit, and the sky is the limit because everyone wants a piece.

Products finally hit the market, and eventually, reality sets in. Like the doomsayers who predict apocalypse time and time again, the prophesied miracles fail to materialize. The technology is immature. Deliverables fail to match objectives. Most importantly, the technology was overvalued, and an adjustment takes place.

This "hype curve" -- rising expectations, peak interest, and curbed enthusiasm -- doesn't happen to every piece of technology that comes around. But this bubble does happen with surprising regularity. Every year, Gartner, a tech research corporation, produces a report that attempts to identify where various technologies are riding on this bubble.

Gartner released its latest report, "2013 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies," last month. In it, the company prognosticates that drones and other unmanned technologies are coming up to that peak. At that point, the unmanned systems sector might be in for some pain.

Robotics is a huge sector, because it represents an incredibly diverse family of technologies. As such, the research firm actually splits robotics into two categories: mobile robots and autonomous vehicles. Drones could be classified in either of those, but mobile robots are closer to peaking than autonomous vehicles.

So what might cause drones to hit "peak hype"? I have a few ideas.

Earlier this month, I wrote for The Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College about the "Drone Journalism Revolution." That piece focused on the three elements that came together in 2011 to generate the idea of drone journalism: political turmoil, natural and man-made disasters, and the maker movement.

Something that didn't make it to the final piece concerned the roadblocks to drone adoption among journalists:

The future is bright for this technology, but drones aren’t totally ready journalism yet. Price of entry is no longer an issue, yet drones are still not “smart” enough to be completely user-friendly. Most of these aircraft cannot fly without some kind of human assistance, and therefore require some kind of specialized training.

Journalists already are burdened with a number of important tasks: cultivating sources, conducting research, attending meetings, filing information requests, writing and re-writing and then writing some more. On top of that, multimedia production, data analysis, coding, web design and online social networking are increasingly becoming requisite skills for journalists in the digital economy. Simultaneously, the collapse of print and the rise of click-based remuneration mean journalists have to produce more content with fewer resources.
Quite simply, journalists don’t have the time to become pilots. The fact that major news organizations in Australia contract drone operators instead of developing them internally indicates there are hurdles remaining for widespread adoption.
I've talked to more than one person from a newsroom who said that their organization purchased a drone, only to find it difficult to control. I've heard stories of people smashing many thousands of dollars of equipment, sometimes spectacularly, sometimes in public. Some of these failures have injured people.

Disposable drones could greatly reduce the financial loss incurred from a crash, but that wouldn't solve the safety issue. And as much as contract drone operators would benefit from a credential structure to limit competition and keep the price for services high, that barrier to entry could stifle innovation in drone journalism.

It's like the famous quote from Ken Olsen, the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, "There is no reason for any individual for anyone to have a computer in his home." Everyone did want a computer at home, they just didn't want mainframe computers, which are large, expensive, and complicated machines that Olsen believed would control "all aspects of our lives."

One might argue that we already have digital devices that control much of our lives, but the point is that drones need to experience a personalization and an evolution in ease of use before any "drone boom" is to happen.

There is an immediate need for systems that can better adapt to changing environments and recover from human error. In other words, drones need true "sense and avoid." As 3DRobotics CEO Chris Anderson has said, the future may be personal drones drones that fly themselves.

There are other barriers which, if not addressed, could precipitate the peak of inflated expectations. Many of these potential barriers have little to do with drone journalism, except that shortfalls in these areas could slow investment and drone development in general.

  1. Can't compete with economy of scale.

    The largest single market for drones is agriculture, which means that AG sector demand (or lack thereof) could drive (or hamper) drone development elsewhere. One-third of the rice fields in Japan already are tended to by robotic helicopters. Research here in the United States has confirmed that drones can be cost-effective because they use less chemicals, but only with specialty crops and crops that grow on uneven terrain. For large-scale, monoculture crops, the economy of scale given by manned aircraft will reign for the foreseeable future.

  2. The data doesn't pan out.

    For data collection, it's a similar story. Drones beat satellites in resolution and turn-around time, but it's still cheaper to hire a Cessna than to contract a Predator. And despite all the buzz about drones making data-driven precision AG possible, I don't think we've seen a proper cost-benefit analysis that confirms a healthy ROI. That being said, there is hope for an aerial data market that caters to niche services.

  3. Regulations put the kibosh on development.

    It's not just about the FAA and UAS integration. I'm talking about ITAR. I'm talking about AG-gag. I'm talking about states that fine $10,000 or more for aerial photos of private property. I'm talking about communities that give bounties for shooting down drones. Accidents that hurt bystanders, and the lawsuits to come out of those accidents. At some point, investors will throw up their hands, and the bubble will pop.

This may sound very much like gloom-and-doom, but these are all temporary problems. They can be solved by allowing adequate time for the technology to mature.

That's also Gartner's opinion. Although it seems drones are approaching peak expectations, they may only be 5 to 10 years from reaching the "plateau of enlightenment."

That may seem like an eternity for those who have gone "all in," and many may not make it out to the other side, but the patient eventually will be rewarded. That includes patient drone journalists.