With Amazon, Google and DHL all experimenting with drones, how long until they become a permanent fixture in our skies?

Are we set to see our skies full of drones?

How long will it be until we see a fleet of distribution drones in the skies? The Drum catches up with Jonny Tooze, managing director of Lab, at Disruption Day, as he explains why this might not be as far off as we think.

Amazon’s dalliance with drone deliveries was largely dismissed as a PR stunt when it was announced a year ago, and repeated calls from Boris Johnson for drones to play a part in solving London’s congestion problems have similarly been dismissed – this time because, well, it was Boris issuing them. But how likely is it that drones will play a role in our immediate futures, or are they still, for now, the stuff of science fiction?

Amazon certainly doesn’t think so and is actively recruiting a team of drone operators, while Google is coming in fast with its own solution. Jonny Tooze, meanwhile, is putting his neck on the line and predicting that 2016 will see the first drone delivery flight in the UK. His agency, Lab, has even gone so far as to launch a drone subsidiary, while he himself has qualified as a drone pilot (it doesn’t elicit quite the same level of respect as an airline pilot, he admits – you don’t get stripes or a dapper hat).

Speaking at The Drum’s recent Disruption Day conference, Tooze explained that one hindering factor in getting the public behind the potential of drones is the fact we still don’t fully know what they are, or what they can do.

Asked whether drones are just toys for overgrown kids to muck around with, he rants: “certainly not if you’re in the military – they kill people with them”. Unfortunately for most of us this is where our understanding of drones comes from, something which Tooze says really “pisses” him off.

Instead, he is keen to point out, there are many non destructive uses of drones, whether these come from the creative industries, agriculture, conservation, enforcement, medical or delivery.

Tooze refers to Dr Peter Enderlein of the British Antarctic Survey (“the guys who discovered the hole in the ozone layer”) who is using drones to monitor ice floes and ice shelves, and to count penguins, among “lots of other sciency things”.

“Drones are significantly improving their capabilities and reducing the dangers associated with this kind of research – including getting bitten by seals.”

For Serge Wich, who monitors biodiversity, drones save him from having to walk through immense jungles to find the nests of orangutan Tooze tells us. “Before drones, he and his team had to trek for weeks around Borneo counting orangutan nests and now they can do the same amount of science in 20 minutes, flying a fixed wing drone around the forest as it used to take two people two weeks to do.”

So plenty of humanitarian uses of drones, but there’s also lots of “amazing arty stuff” people are doing with them, such as Cirque Du Soleil and its troupe of dancing drones, as well as “some really crap wedding photography” (search for “drone wedding video crash,” Tooze guffaws). There’s even been a drone porn film, he tells us (Drone Boning, if you’re interested).

But just how disruptive are drones set to be? Well, if you tuned into the Euro 2016 qualifier between Serbia and Albania in October, you will have witnessed that they can literally disrupt, with a drone carrying an Albanian flag leading to chaotic scenes and the match being abandoned.

For brands however, Tooze points out, the key competitive advantage drones will offer is “a shit hot logistics operation”.

“People laughed at Amazon’s PrimeAir ad, calling it a PR stunt,” he says. “It was a bit, but I wasn’t laughing. Seems they weren’t either. Now they are actively recruiting lots of drone operators in the UK, so it’s more than just hype.”

Google has become the latest tech giant to get into the drone business, saying it has been exploring self-flying vehicles for the past couple of years, bringing in Dave Vos to take Project Wing from research to product. It has released images of a multi rotor drone with a fixed wing which allows it to go further distances, and a winch system that allows it to lower good to the ground to avoid it being stolen or damaging anything.

Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) legislation around commercial drone use in the UK and US is still extremely restrictive, but in Germany there has already been drones used on an exceptional basis to deliver medicines, for example, and it is predicted that they will add between $100bn and $250bn to the US economy over the next 10 years. Add to this the fact that Royal Mail shares fell 8.3 per cent recently and there is real opportunity.

It is taken as read that drone delivery will be cooler, but will it be cheaper, faster, accepted by society? “It will certainly help the environment,” says Tooze, but problems with CAA and FAA legislation aside, it will be educating the public about the value of drones, and their uses for good, that will be key in speeding things along. Most interesting though will be the reaction of retailers.

“A fundamental point is that the significant difference between a physical retail experience and ecommerce has always been that you have to wait for the product, and this technology could significantly change that mindset. But for some retailers, the last thing they need is another technology taking people away from the high street.”

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