Usability Test: Drone Technology | infinite 8 institute / by Ean Garrett

A test flight with the IRIS+ Drone by Berkeley-based 3D Robotics as our safety dog does pre-launch inspections.

It is clear that drone technology will disrupt many industries as the usability of the machines advance. While likely difficult for the average consumer, according to our experience, a quicker learning curve for the technology will greatly increase early and late adoption. The current flight times leave more to be desired, but with advances in energy efficiency, we expect overall usability to increase. Also, as the error tolerability of these expensive robotic machines is heightened, it will greatly add to consumer confidence in the technology. From our review, we can foresee many future applications for the technology that will affect entire sectors in the near future.

A key factor in the adoption of any technology or product is its learnability. While flying the IRIS+ drone by Berkeley-based 3D Robotics, the components of the machine were intimidating at-first. The flight controller has a large number of buttons and switches for manual flight. What we believe saves the technology from chasing away the "Average Joe" is the automated flight features. With an Android tablet, we were able to download the Tower application, which gave us a satellite image of our surroundings. The application also gave us the ability to use our finger to draw out a customized flight path right on the tablets screen. The IRIS+ is also an industry leader for its unique “follow-me” feature, which allows the drone to autonomously follow you. The feature works with Android devices as well as Android and Pebble smartwatches. Recently, 3DR announced DroneKit, an open platform for creating web-based and on-board drone applications. Similar to how applications on smartphones hide the complexities of technology, increase smartphone utility, and ease of use, we expect similar results with the advent and evolution of drone applications as well.

Another major test for drones are the limitations of flight time and the resulting call for higher energy efficiency. The IRIS+ uses a lithium polymer (LiPo) battery, providing up to 22 minutes of flight time. If you add a Tarot 2D Gimble (a fancy camera holder) to increase stabilization when shooting video with a GoPro Hero 3 camera, then you can knock off another six minutes, for 16 minutes of total flight time. The obvious answer to us to increase flight time, would be to strap solar powered cells on a drone for increased energy efficiency. However, after quick research we discovered that due to the current size and weight of solar cells, that it would make flight too difficult for the current quadcopter (four propellers) drones. Without increased flight times, there will be limitations to the innovative tasks and functions a drone can make, therefore affecting their early adoption.

While flying the IRIS+ in pretty choppy winds (30+mph), we found the drone to hold its own. The machine was resilient as it naturally stabilized itself in the wind (see video above). The drone controller and application both have Return-to-Launch (RTL) features that direct the drone automatically to return to its point of launch, upon the loss of RC signal, GPS signal (an active GPS signal is required to launch), and low battery (25% battery level). The IRIS+ also has a “Geofence", which is a safety fence that restricts the drone horizontally to 908 feet (300 meters) from the launch point and under 320 feet (200 meters) in altitude. If the drone reaches the end of the fence in either direction, it will automatically return to its launch point. We believe these fail-safe features may be the strongest asset to current drone technology, and will be encouraging to consumers who don’t have another $750 to spend after accidentally losing control of a drone.

Hands-on experience with this technology opens the imagination to the possibilities of future applications. Drones are already hovering mistletoes above holiday customers, delivering Crocs, filming movies and television series, and delivering packages. Facebook even plans to use drones to beam WiFi to remote parts of Africa. Still, further room for innovation remains as we foresee the technology being used to safely provide relief in natural disasters and war zones. The technology could help solve the employment crisis among disabled civilians and veterans. It could even be used to put out forest and residential fires without endangering men and women. In the coming years, forecasters estimate the domestic drone market to reach $82.1 billion by 2025, and to create an estimated 100,000 jobs within the first ten years of widespread commercialization. Large employers are already willing to pay $50 an hour or roughly $100,000 per year for drone pilots and engineers. While such technology will undoubtedly disrupt many industries, affecting job stability across sectors, as consultants it is our job to inform our clients of what is to come unbiasedly, doing our best to prepare them to be successful in the new digital-age. We believe drone technology will play a defining role in the new digital era.

Our experience with drone technology has confirmed our belief in its power to disrupt. But rather than run from what is inevitable, we encourage those on the sideline to actively embrace the technology, and gain mastery early, avoiding the disruption as usability increases. But before disruption becomes imminent, there must be a shorter learning curve to gain user proficiency with the technology. Next, the machines must gain greater energy efficiency in the form of a higher performing battery or the addition of a solar energy integration. However, the technologies ‘fail-safe’ measures may speed up the commercialization and wide-spread consumer adoption of the technology. Although current usability of drone technology may deter some early adopters, the billions of dollars in government and private sector investment, tell us that drones are coming and will likely be here to stay. 

Ean Garrett, J.D., is the author of two books, "Rebirth of a Dream" and creator of the Micro-Social Impact Bondas well as the Chief Innovation Officer of the consulting firm, Infinite 8 Institute, L3C, specializing in education and social innovation. Follow him on Twitter & IG: @eangarrett