Are Drones Ready for the Mass Market? It Depends on Whether They're the Next iPhone or Google Glass

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Up until recently, the word "drone" likely conjured up images of an unmanned flying military object going into war zones while soldiers controlled the device remotely. Nowadays, partly thanks to Amazon, drones have taken on a whole new meaning for the typical consumer.

In 2013, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced on "60 Minutes" that the e-commerce giant was looking into delivery via drones. While that reality is still far away, thanks to regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration, the notion of seeing drones outside of a war zone is becoming a more familiar concept.

Two-thirds of consumers expect to receive their first drone-delivered package in the next five years, according to a report from communications firm Walker Sands.

The use of drones for delivery is certainly growing, but what about consumer drones? Is the Average Joe going to buy a drone for himself? 

“The demand for drones seems to still be in the early adoption phase, but catching fire as the idea has been taken more seriously by retailers and therefore in the public eye much more in this last year,” said Dave Parro, retail practice lead at Walker Sands.

Parro is confident in the adoption of the drones for delivery but doesn’t believe consumers themselves will own them any time soon.

“Drones are likely to remain a novelty item in the near future for the average consumer, no more popular than Google Glasses in current time, unless made more practical and affordable for the the majority to adopt,” he said.

Last Wednesday, DJI, one of the most popular consumer drone makers, announced its newest drone, the Phantom 3. The cheapest model of this device goes for $999, and while there are cheaper drones out there, DJI is justifying the price by billing this as the ultimate photography device to have.

“Drones are actually much more popular in the consumer world than they are in the professional settings,” said Eric Cheng, director of aerial imaging for DJI. “The Average Joe is using them to capture vacation videos, to explore new perspectives and simply to fly for fun.”

At the launch event for the Phantom 3, filmmaker Philip Bloom, photographer Stacy Darlington, and volunteer firefighter Peter Sachs each spoke about how they use the drone in their life. For the creatives, it opens up new possibilities in terms of angles and perspectives. For firefighters and the like, it can save lives.

Sachs used a drone during a quarry fire to determine whether the area was safe to send in human firefighters without risking their lives. Drones are “perfect for any situation where the only alternative is to risk human life,” he said.

Drones could also be used as surveillance and security, whether for corporate offices or even personal estates. Or they could be used to look for oil spills.

They’re already used in agriculture to help farmers monitor crops, notifying them when they need to water plants or spray pesticides. They’re even being used to herd sheep. There’s also a drone monitoring the Alaskan Pipeline that looks for leaks and even potential terrorists. And then there’s the drone that found a missing elderly man.

“We’ve identified over 300 potential commercial applications where these drones can benefit mankind,” said John Minor, provost of the Phoenix-based Unmanned Vehicle University, an educational institution that offers degrees in drone engineering.

According to Minor, the two biggest challenges to drone adoption are education and regulation. Many consumers still view drones as dangerous and possible ways to invade privacy. As the FAA solidifies regulations on drones -- Minor expects this to happen later this year or early next year -- the technology will be better positioned to become popular.

“When people start understanding the technology, and as drones get more and more safe, for whatever purpose they’re going to be used for, just about everybody might want to have them,” Minor said. “We’re counting on an explosion [of adoption].”

The Consumer Electronics Association expects the global market for consumer drones to reach $300 million by 2018, a significant increase from the associations 2014 forecast of $84 million. DJI alone has increased sales three-five times year over year for the past five years, according to Cheng.

As drones become more popular, though, it’s important to recognize that there are regulations involved. In the U.S. you can’t fly a drone above 400 feet or near an airport, and the drone always has to be in eyesight and weigh less than 55 pounds. Outside of the U.S. the laws are more lenient, but it’s important for consumers to be aware of the applicable rules of a particular area.

“Have fun with your drone, but keep in mind that they’re not toys,” said Lisa Ellman, co-chair of international law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Practice Group. “There are safety and privacy concerns. If you’re careless or reckless, the FAA could fine you.”

--Written by Rebecca Borison for MainStreet

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