Game of Drones: Consumer fad or lucrative revenue stream?

While the word ‘drone’ would once summon the image of terrifying unmanned military helicopters in most people’s minds, in the past few years the term has been used to describe the latest must-have gadget.

Ever since Amazon revealed that it was working on a drone delivery service back in December 2013, small smartphone-controlled copters have become a popular Christmas gift for children and adults around the globe.

With Federal Aviation Administration official Rich Swayze warning that there will be one million drones sold at Christmas this year, this is an area of the tech market that should be of great interest to retailers.

“We’ve always had great success with radio controlled toys and gadgets such as helicopter products, so drones were a natural progression for us,” Maplin’s buying director, Ben Winter, tells PCR when asked why the retailer decided to stock drones.

“They were new, innovative and still relatively unheard of in the UK when we brought them in – and over the past year they’ve become a huge trend.”

The retailer has sold more than 17,000 drones in the past year. But it’s not just the gadgets themselves. There are opportunities to sell add- ons and create bundles too. “We currently sell lots of add- ons for our drone range, including spare batteries, propellers, controllers and prop guards,” adds Winter.

Consumer interest doesn’t stop at flying a little drone around your back garden over the Christmas period though. There is now such a thing as ‘drone racing’.

FPV offered the first UK first person view systems in 2008 and have since set up racing and drone clubs.

“Drone racing is destined for great things,” reveals Simon Dale, MD of FPV.

“Big sponsors are showing interest as well as many TV production companies, so it shows all the signs of becoming a big international sport.”

Winter agrees: “Drone racing is becoming popular. It is early days but we believe there is huge potential for growth in this area.”

The UK will be seeing its first Drone Show take place on December 5th to 6th 2015, and the show’s founder, Oliver O’Brien, also sees huge potential for drone racing: “While it’s at a very grassroots level at the moment, it is on the cusp of something big. Our show will be the first major UK event and expo with an indoor FPV track.”

With drone toy suppliers including the likes of Flying Gadgets, Revell, Top Race, Flair and Wow Stuff, it looks like the consumer interest in these gadgets isn’t going away any time soon. But there also appears to be plenty of opportunity for resellers to sell to businesses too. O’Brien reveals that there are actually many more business uses for drones than you might think: “There’s aerial photography, surveying land and monitoring farming crops. Ofcom now uses them on things like the BT tower to check satellite signals.

“Hollywood is another example. Where they would use helicopters for sweeping aerial shots before, they are now using drones,” he explains.

UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) can also be used in humanitarian crises.

“Drones can detect phone signals, so if there was major disaster and someone was buried under rubble and their phone was still working, drones can hone in on them,” O’Brien adds.

Consumer products manufacturer Parrot has seen a lot of success with its drone ranges and while it’s continuing to ramp up the consumer products, it’s now also focusing on the commercial market.

Vanessa Loury, global PR director at Parrot, tells PCR: “Parrot is moving forward with its strategy to identify outstanding small firms and achieve verticalisation in the commercial drone sector, bringing together and contributing to the development of leading firms in their fields, focused on meeting the needs of its three priority markets: precision farming, 3D mapping and inspection.”

To earn money from using drones, whether that is photography or checking oil rigs, you have to obtain a training qualification, which gives you permission for aerial work. Couple this with the fact that drones can be quite tricky to fly without hitting someone (or yourself) in the face, and it’s easy to see why there is now a number of training programmes for both professionals and consumers, including Maplin’s drone academy, which the retailer says is a UK first.

So what can we expect from drones in the future?

“We’ve seen the demand for drones growing year on year and there are also many professional applications that will definitely develop in the future,” says Loury.

O’Brien adds: “Drones will be one of the biggest revolutions in the tech industry for the next 20 years.”

Read our full interview with Oliver O’Brien to find out more about the UK Drone Show and how big the drone market could get

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