Imagine walking down Mission Street in San Francisco when, suddenly, you hear a buzzing overhead. Before you can even look skyward, a bag of tacos is unceremoniously dropped on your head.
Didn't order Mexican? Oops. Drone delivery gone awry.
While this isn't likely to happen today, in the future, it could become a reality. Indeed, commercial delivery by drone is still awaiting official approval by the FAA but could get the green light as early as this year. Until then, big companies like Amazon that have talked about delivering products and packages via unmanned flying systems will need to cool their jets.
But drones are gaining popularity. They were all the rage at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. In a special report, Business Insider forecasts that 12 percent of an estimated $98 billion in cumulative global spending on aerial drones over the next decade will be for commercial purposes.
For the average consumer, though, what's the point? Over this recently passed holiday season, I asked friends and family if this might be the year that they buy or ask for a drone as a gift. The overwhelming response: No. Why would I spend hundreds of dollars on something that's basically just a toy? And let's not even talk about the privacy concerns.
To get some answers, I caught up with Henri Seydoux at CES. He is founder and CEO of Paris-based Parrot. Among other high tech wireless products, Parrot sells several lines of drones for air and land.
"For some people, drones fulfill a dream," Seydoux says. "To fly is something that people cannot do. You can do this for minutes, or many minutes, with a drone. This is the main reason why people buy drones."
At Parrot, drone sales represent a fast-growing source of revenue, growing more than 130 percent year-over-year. In the third quarter of 2014, drone revenue was about $32.7 million, or about 44 percent of the company's overall revenue. That's up from 22 percent during the same quarter in 2013.
Here's a look at Parrot's mini drones in action at CES:
In general, drones range in price and capabilities. A basic remote-controlled drone with no camera, like the Hubsan X4, can cost as little as $40. Larger drones that come equipped with GoPro cameras and other high-end features, like the DJI Phantom Aerial UAV Drone Quadcopter, can cost several hundred dollars, or even $1,000 or more.
In addition to fulfilling a person's desire to soar high like a bird (without spending hours earning a pilot's license), Seydoux says people are buying drones that are equipped with cameras as a way to create videos. “When you film your house, or any house, you come from the trees and you see your property and your children below, you can create a beautiful, dramatic image as if it were a movie,” he says. “It is difficult with a handheld camera to travel or to pan. With a drone, it’s easy and smooth. … It’s a flying camera.”
The business opportunities for drones will depend on the forthcoming regulations from the FAA. Just this week, the agency granted CNN permission to test drones for news reporting. As part of the deal, CNN agreed to work with a research group to study its use of the drones and share the findings with the FAA over the next 12 to 24 months.
While he declined to speculate about the pending regulations, Seydoux said he thinks drones will be of great use to the agriculture industry -- particularly for aerial mapping and 3-D imaging of areas. Another is real estate, where drones can be used to create detailed video tours inside and outside of properties.
The controversial application of drones for commercial delivery can also make sense, given the right context, Seydoux says. “Delivering a pizza in New York City with a drone is crazy,” he says. “But there are places where people live far from a city and maybe they need a drug from the doctor. If you can deliver the drug -- which is light [in weight] and useful -- by drone then that is something to seriously consider.”
In a few more years, Seydoux says another potential area for drones is video games. "Drones fly and do incredible things," he says. "Someday it could be like video games, but in real life."