So I had my tenure track position at a top-tier university when I became hooked on drone technology.

A job opportunity in a prominent drone startup emerged in the Bay Area of California. I jumped in with both feet, leaving my academic position and some surprised colleagues and students in my department (particular my grad students). I also left any job security that comes with a faculty position.  I knew full well that most startups are destined for failure.

I learned very quickly that working at a Silicon Valley startup was both similar and different from an academic job.  Similar in that you wear many hats, are surrounded by very smart, driven people, and are always trying to innovate. Different in that the innovation needs to lead to a product and making money, as opposed to simply putting another brick in the wall of knowledge. A great idea (and there are a lot of them) has to be dropped quickly if it can’t be productized in the commercial space. In academia, you can pretty much pursue any idea to your heart’s content as long as it can be funded in some way and lead to papers.

I think I learned as much in a year of being at a startup as my entire dissertation for my PhD. It’s like a firehose open full tap.

As part of my new job, I was interacting with academics using drones. I learned very quickly that academia was way behind the drone industry. In part, this was due to stringent and somewhat vague federal regulations surrounding drones. Universities were (and still are) confused on how to deal with drones policy-wise, despite recent clarification by the FAA on academic use. Academia is also just generally slow to adopt new technology and the drone industry is moving at a breakneck pace (it changes weekly!).  Therefore, it is a significant challenges for schools and universities to keep up.  In my experience, even the most innovative programs are still far behind the technology.

The academic community as a whole, and scientists in particular, are painfully slow when it comes to drones. Sure, there are some early adopters, but most scientists are completely unaware of the capabilities of the new technology and are thinking very narrowly. They see a camera with propellers and wonder what they will do with the pictures. They don’t see a flying smart phone with incredible potential to revolutionize how we collect data to address scientific questions and monitor major global issues like climate change, invasive species, habitat loss, etc…

After attending a couple academic conferences in my new role, it became very clear that it will be several years before the scientific community begins to integrate drones at scale. Instead, it will be the commercial industry that adopts drones for financial gain and eventually the scientific community will scramble to play catchup.

On August 31st, the FAA initiated a written test for a commercial drone license. Instead of the need for a manned-aircraft pilots license, a drone license consists of a written test (akin to a drivers test) and $150 fee. Consequently, the drone industry is about to get big.

Real big.

I suspect the driving factor of academic adoption will be the need for students to understand the new technology if they are to be competitive for jobs.  Almost certainly this will be the case for all GIS degrees moving forward. How quickly this transition occurs across scientific disciplines though remains to be seen.