Kristin Clarke is books editor for Associations Now and a business journalist and sustainability director for ASAE.
While legal, safety, and privacy concerns are leaving the role of drones at tradeshows up in the air, they could turn out to be a must-have in every event planner's toolbox once everything settles.
Whether drones are a fly-by-night fad or a must-have for any planner's toolbox remains to be seen, but right now, "drones are taking off," says Richard Reid, vice president of digital services at Freeman, a meetings management company.
He realized just how fast while attending the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show. Its unmanned aerial vehicles section featured pilots in flight cages demonstrating drone capabilities: They used GPS to read visual exhibit-floor cues for live camera feeds, for example.
Reid can imagine a drone-based, rapid-delivery service for tradeshow buyers, personal drone valets that guide attendees to specific booths, and high-resolution drone photography live-streamed from exhibitor hot spots to nonattendees.
"The opportunity for us is to show customers how different venues look that they're considering for their event," Reid says. "Instead of someone walking through with a camera, you have a smooth, videotaped fly-through that adds an air of elegance."
Still, challenges remain. "First, the average flight time is only five to seven minutes, so you need to [ponder] your value proposition," says Reid. "Second, drones were in cages because they could hurt attendees if they hit them. Liability is high. How can we take advantage of drone technology before we learn how to bring them into the environment safely?"
Privacy, a third challenge, seems easier to address. Attendees are used to roving videographers, so communicating that drones may broadcast similar images would likely suffice. "If drones stay in approved zones, you shouldn't have a problem," he says.
The legal status of drones at tradeshows is still up in the air. In February, the Federal Aviation Administration released proposed rules for commercial uses of drones, but final regulations are likely a long way off.
Meanwhile, a drone flew through Reid's own sales show, exciting attendees. Which way will drones at association meetings go? Still calculating.
[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Drones Take Off."]