For years, there has been optimistic talk that drones – the popular name for UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) – would become ubiquitous and used for security purposes. Instead, drones have been popular among hobbyists but much less so in the commercial sector, undermined by strict federal government restrictions.

It’s changing. The drone-industry is becoming an increasingly promising technology-intensive industry, one that will employ far more workers than it does today while enhancing the efficiency and security of a variety of businesses.

Just after Christmas, U.S. regulators after a long delay finally established industrywide requirements for remote identification of drones. This means that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which heretofore had to approve drone use beyond the line-of-sight on a case-by-case basis, has now instead established broad safety standards. These are intended to promote eventual widespread home delivery of small packages and a number of other previously restricted applications.

Among other things, the FAA has mandated the use of onboard radio transmitters for drones to transmit their positions, substantially enhancing drone safety. Existing models will have to be retrofitted with the technology.

These new steps open the door in 2021 to the natural business appetite to jump on a profitable opportunity. The FAA estimates that there are 1.25 million personal drones in the United States and 385,000 commercial drones. Now the FAA predicts by 2023 there will be 835,000 commercial drones – more than double the current number - largely because more businesses will adopt UAV programs for deliveries, inspections and other uses.

With the new regulations, this forecast could easily turn out to be overly conservative.

 “Almost anyone you talk to will probably agree that drones will be commonly used in almost all industries across the board,” says Dino Boukouris, a strategic and M&A advisor at Momentum Cyber which counsels the cybersecurity ecosystem and is an expert on drones and drone security. “Look for the drone industry to be opening up hundreds of thousands of jobs in coming years,” adds Brett Velicovich, an independent, Washington-based consultant known as “drone warrior,” with four Fortune 500 clients.

Major players will include the agricultural and utility industries, construction, oil and gas, and first responders. And, arguably, the biggest of all could be the security industry.

“Today, security guards do rounds once an hour,” Boukouris points out. “How efficient is that?  Drones could solve that need easily.”

In coming years, companies are highly likely to adopt UAVs to monitor their perimeters, to the point where it will likely thin the ranks of guards. This is predictable because the key to security events is the timely, efficient understanding of pertinent details and the assignment of actions in response to the event.

Drones have the edge because details of the event and assigned actions are uploaded directly via software to the drone for immediate deployment. In the case of a human intrusion, a geospatially-enabled video management system can automatically inform the drone of the intrusion and the exact location of the event. The drone can then fly to the location of the event using pre-defined flight routes, locking the camera on intend targets and waiting for further instructions.

Clearly, drones can do all this and guards cannot. Surveillance cameras, of course, are also part and parcel of security today and can pinpoint criminal behavior that slips by guards, but they do not assign reactions.

Drones can also be used to improve security in parking lots, prison yards and in border security, and to better protect college campuses, cultural landmarks and livestock on ranches. They may even wind up becoming important security tools in residential neighborhood security watch systems.

More than the makers and users of other IoT devices, drone manufacturers and users need to look at the big picture. Routine business considerations alone are insufficient. Underlying digital technology today is the fact that surveillance and security – whether commercial or residential – continues to grow steadily in a world of increasing volatility, ambiguity and complexity. Privacy – not just security – is becoming a key concern.

Drones do harbor some vulnerabilities. The full implementation of onboard radio transmitters, for instance, could take years. So flying blind in the interim could continue to endanger people. “Drones can crash into each other today, and that is a problem,” says Greg Falco, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford researching drone prospects and cyber risks. Even more significant, drones can be compromised like any other IoT device, in their case from as much as a mile away.

Security is the bigger issue and needs more work. Once a drone has been located, it can be hacked and video and other images the drone is broadcasting to its base station can be downloaded. In one high-profile case roughly two years ago, rogue drones grounded planes at London Gatwick, England’s second-busiest airport, generating flight delays and cancellations.

Drones are already being used to target Wi-Fi connections, many of which are not well secured. Too often, they rely solely on single-factor authentication and the use of typical passwords that can be easily cracked, especially with the absence of an encrypted connection. This makes it easy, for example, to intercept communication in a building or in a public cafe. It’s also a concern that drones are commonly manufactured in China or assembled from Chinese components and could contain a hidden backdoor for the Chinese government.

Fortunately, there is some good news on the drone front as well.

Drones, like other electronic devices, can be better protected. Major drone manufacturers issue patches when new security threats emerge and these should always be installed. Also helpful is a virtual private network (VPN), which stops hackers from accessing communications when connected to the internet.

In coming years, storage in the cloud and, in particular, encryption, will be the best answer to security concerns. The latter will become common as prices recede.

Significant growth in commercial drones is a matter of dollars and cents and fundamentally inevitable. Risk alone will not stop industries from embracing drones, especially as they are continually outfitted with better camera systems and batteries. This is a good thing. No question, the widespread use of drones will create significant new opportunities for the security industry and also help juice the overall economy.


This article originally ran in Security, a twice-monthly security-focused eNewsletter for security end users, brought to you by Security Magazine. Subscribe here.