By John Wright Chairman of Unmanned Aircraft Association of Ireland. Created as a discussion paper for the annual CongRegation social media un-conference in Cong, for more see here.

Five years ago on Christmas morning, I was handed a book on drone and robotic technology. After the first chapter, I was well and truly seduced.
To most back then (and even now) it seemed unimaginable that small flying robots might film our landscapes, serve us food or even deliver packages to our door. Until recently, drones were dismissed as an amateur niche. But the technology has evolved rapidly and as drones get smaller and smarter, they continue to show us that there are few limits to their capabilities.

Drones are changing the game for many sectors. Industrial inspections and surveys are faster, cheaper and more accurate, using drones. But the most prevalent use so far has been in aerial film and photography to create eye-catching content!

But just like other new technologies – drones bring their own set of questions and challenges. Some of the more common subjects are:

(i) What are drones used for?

(ii) Aren’t there laws on drones?

(iii) How can they be legally used in business?

To many, using drones to create digital content is a no brainer. After all, drones certainly capture the imagination. But moving beyond the hype: are drones just a catchy marketing stunt or part of a serious digital marketing strategy?

There is undoubtedly value in simply associating your brand with something so innovative and unexpected. Creativity is currency in social media and drone content gets hits. When Twitter published “Drone Selfies” of the stars at Cannes in 2014, for example, their @dronie account gained several thousand followers within a few hours of its creation. “Superman with a Gopro”, filmed using a drone, has almost 18 million Youtube views. It’s been shown many times that aerial content can be a powerful PR instrument in a digital marketers toolbox.

But drones are no once off marketing gimmick. They provide new perspectives in a way that ground footage never can. Nine times out of ten, aerial videos look better than what a photographer can capture on the ground and they have even become known as the biggest advance in film since the tripod. The unique angles that drones capture are becoming an essential part of productions, large and small and directors are rewiring their imaginations.

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Viewers, initially surprised at then angles that drones capture will soon begin expecting it. The smartest media outlets are catching on to this phenomenon: CNN, for example, were recently granted a licence to use drones in their broadcasts. Others broadcasters, recognising the value of aerial footage, are following suit.
And drones are not limited to film and photography. With powerful on board sensors, they can collect an array of data, making them invaluable tools for aerial inspections and surveys – faster and cheaper than traditional ground based methods. In the hands of a professional, drones add real value to a range of sectors such as media, construction & engineering, architecture, sustainable energy and farming. The list is endless.

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But while anybody can buy a drone, not everybody can be a pilot. In the hands of an unlicensed or reckless pilot they can be a serious hazard. Even a small drone, for instance, is the equivalent of a steam iron being thrown at 30mph. Safety must be paramount.

The Irish Aviation Authority (IAA), responsible for air safety, already carefully regulates commercial drone operations. All professional operators must be trained, licensed and insured, and have sufficient knowledge of air law; for instance, flights over urban or residential areas must be specifically authorized by the IAA and strong safety precautions are required.

Privacy too, is a widespread concern. Drones cross boundaries with ease and can access places where we previously took our privacy for granted, such as gardens. The long gaze of drones means that pilots can capture personal information accidentally, or worse, deliberately.

As the numbers of drones in our skies increase, regulations will be more important than ever and from a liability and reputation perspective, both the pilot and the customer should be aware of the need to play by the rules. New laws are in development and expected next year.

Each day brings something new: Lighter cameras, longer flight times, smarter drones and even new laws. The pace of change is speeding up. But it is we humans that are in the driving seat, and drones of today and tomorrow will be restricted only by our own imaginations.


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