The beta blog

< The beta blog | Dec 16, 2014

UK brings in Digital Tax as Ofcom report identifies UK shoppers as the most prolific online

It is now over a month since I wrote my blog “We don’t need new digital taxes, we need an international tax system fit for the Digital Age” about the OECD BEPS project which is seeking multilateral consensus to update the international tax system to cope with how modern businesses are run. It turns out that the UK Government does not entirely agree.

The concern of governments, including the UK, is that the current rules allow foreign businesses contracting with domestic customers to pay less tax on the profits generated by those sales. The claim is that some businesses take steps to ensure that only a limited portion of those profits are taxable under current rules.

Although the UK Government helped to kick-start the BEPS process and is committed to the need for a multilateral solution, the timescale of BEPS has meant that the UK has decided it cannot wait for a solution and so it is bringing in a new tax entitled the “Diverted Profits Tax” next April.

This sense of urgency is undoubtedly fuelled by the speed with which digital is changing business. As an example, on 11 December Ofcom issued an International Communications Market Report which highlighted, amongst other things, that the UK has the highest e-commerce spending amongst the major nations surveyed and the highest proportion of online spending. A concern would be that there is a lot of taxable profit which could follow these sales offshore.

One explanation for the UK apparently moving ahead of the international consensus (and which can be reconciled with ongoing support for the BEPS project) is that the UK is just trying to create a tax which anticipates the potential BEPS changes; ie the DPT will become otiose once we move into a post-BEPS world. The tax rate of the DPT at 25% is 5% higher than normal corporation tax and this is indicative of it being a move intended to change behaviour; ie to get businesses to change the way they operate to anticipate the new world.

So far, so reasonable, however, the concerns centre around the risk of retaliatory action by other governments which will adversely affect UK based businesses. As an open economy, heavily reliant upon internationally traded goods and services, there is a significant downside if the DPT encourages a return to the protectionism of the 1930’s.

By the way, although this article is framed in terms of this being a digital tax, it will apply to any business and includes no elements which would restrict it to what is often meant by the term “Digital Businesses” as targeting in this way is contrary to EU rules.

If you want to find out more about the new, please read the blog by one of my partners, Stella Amiss.

So what should businesses (and digital businesses) do?

I would recommend that any UK business (whether UK headquartered or not) which sells internationally, or aspires to, takes a look at these rules. One question would be to consider what effect it would have on them if other governments take similar action; ie they seek to tax profits currently allocated to the UK. Given that this would lead to a reduction in the UK tax, the government officials in HMRC and the Treasury who are currently working on this project would be interested to hear about this.

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< The beta blog | Dec 15, 2014

Private equity’s struggle with the digital native

While private equity may be a relatively young part of the investment industry, its participants typically are not. In the digital age – which is now – this is problematic.

Private equity firms are there to bring value-creating transformation to businesses, whether that means reviving and reshaping established players or positioning promising companies for growth.

Effecting this sort of change requires a thorough understanding of the business’s customer base, but this is something undergoing dramatic change.

The adult population in the UK is currently undergoing a generational transition; we are witnessing the demise of the traditional (pre-digital) consumer and the ascendance of “digital natives”, members of a generation that has grown up knowing only a digitally connected world. Sandwiched between these two generations are the “digital converts”: those who are adapting as adults to life in the digital age.

Right now, digital converts constitute the largest portion of the UK active adult population. By 2020, they will be overtaken by digital natives.

Small examples of generational differences abound in day-to-day life. I see it when I take my children for a day out in London. By the time we have returned home they have documented the day in beautifully sound-tracked and edited video using free Lego-blocks from the internet that I didn’t know existed.

Understanding the wants and needs of digital native consumers will only become more important in value creation. I addressed some of these issues at a recent event – the Financial Times’ two-day FT Innovate conference in London – and you can see the talk in full here. 

I highlighted how we should think differently about some of the disruptive businesses with which we are all familiar; how the world in beta – which is how we are describing the rapidly changing digital age – is warping familiar business models and creating new ones.

A prime example would be the ‘taxi-like-but-not-quite’ service Uber. What I like about Uber is that it is not just about taxis. It is about making units of assets identifiable, sellable and auctionable, a model that can equally be applied to, for example, a logistics business accessing a fleet of lorries.

Anticipating and meeting the demands of the digital native

There are many things that private equity firms can and should be doing to anticipate and meet the demands of the digital native – both in terms of the portfolio companies they back and their own organisations. The first and easiest move is to foster diversity.

In this digital age you need diversity on a new level. Greater diversity has always correlated to better performance, but in the digital age the need is even more profound. The digital talent of organisations is held in the brains and hearts of young people, often with no budgetary or hierarchical power. Private equity firms should think about how to get these digital natives to contribute both within their portfolio companies and in their own firms. Some companies, for example, encourage digital natives to play an active role in their board meetings.

Digital Natives are also incredibly important for another reason. In today's digital age many things are changing, one of which is Information Technology (IT). IT is becoming much more agile and modular, and 'IT Lego blocks" will become more available and often for free. This creates a world with two types of software developers: a "traditional type" that writes code not too dissimilarly from 10 or 20 years ago, and that requires all the usual deep software development skills.

Secondly there's a new "drag-and-drop type" who creates code not by writing it, but by assembling a visual drag-and-drop block style.  We believe that this second type of software developer will be mainly digital natives, and will have two important features that makes them attractive: 1) they will probably cost less than the "deeper" software developers; 2) they will have a better understanding of the end customer, and arguably a sharper business acumen.

One more reason to really identify the high-potential digital natives in your business and give them degrees of freedom so that their "slices of genius" can emerge and flourish. Basically identifying and empowering your own digital natives can give your business more agility. Why is this a big deal ?

Because in a world in which adapting to the future while the future happens is more important than predicting the future, agility is a great source of competitive advantage.

The equation is simple: Digital Natives = Greater Agility = Increased Competitive Advantage.

If you would like to discuss other ways in which either your firm or your portfolio companies can shape their business around the emerging digital natives, please do get in touch.

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< The beta blog | Dec 4, 2014

Five mission-critical skills required in the digital age

The digital revolution is here and has fundamentally transformed how we live and work forever. The analogue age of old is gone and while many ‘traditional’ skills are still useful and transferable, this new world in beta requires professionals of all seniority and industries to adapt and embrace new, and what I call, mission-critical skills for the digital age. 

What are they? Below I outline five of them. 

1. Digital literacy

Having a proficient understanding of technologies, applications, software programs such as search engines, social media, spreadsheets, databases, and information storage and management is a must. These digital tools are ingrained in our day-to-day lives and are becoming more intuitive and complex as the technology develops. Besides this, familiarity with technological devices such as smartphones, tablets and (as the market develops) smartwatches will be a core requirement.

I would also argue, however, that less obvious and more abstract thinking patterns like algorithmic thinking, an analytical approach to challenges or application of network theory also should be part of an individual's basic skillset.

2. Embrace and welcome change 

Understand that the rate of innovation with digital technology is only increasing and therefore embracing new technologies from the broad spectrum discussed above and embedding them in to your life will be beneficial to your career. In other words, stop being a 'digital tourist' and become a native. This is easier said than done of course and where some people adapt to change seamlessly, for others it takes hard and conscious work.

Points 1 and 2 are about different levels of internalisation, that are the ‘knowing’ and ‘digesting’ of the digital environment. Once mastered, a major turning point comes, and that’s to the external.

3. Become a meaningful content creator

Becoming a contributor by creating digital content. Being a contributor is not only sharing content per se, but sharing in a meaningful context by matching your messages with the right audience and channel. Whether it is a blog, tweet, LinkedIn post, video, image or presentation all depends on your content and the audience.

When you are on this level your sharing should not be by chance, but by choice, knowing why you do what you do.

4. Be an active contributor to a community

Shaping and building digital communities and allows you to connect with like-minded people in a meaningful way. To become a useful member (or indeed leader) of a community requires continuous participation in the form of providing useful information (links, articles, research etc.) to being personable, helpful and friendly. Of course, understanding the interconnection of networks and nodes and knowing what type of content resonates with the influencers within that community will allow you to become an influencer within that community yourself.

Ultimately becoming an active contributor to a community takes time, thoughtfulness and an understanding of network dynamics, and will take you to true cognitive and emotional influence over a well defined group of individuals.

5. Become a trust agent

Building trust in the digital world is the most critical digital skill you can acquire. Creating trust is impossible without personal interaction, and experience shows that continuous participation within online communities will help you acquire trust among relevant groups. If you become a ‘trendsetter’ or innovator in your own right by being a valuable source of information will ultimately allow you to build trust.

Uniqueness is key here: replicate your online personality offline and re-create your ego in digital space. You may argue this is more art than science, to which I would reply, is classical leadership not? Originality and being an innovator is just one element to developing trust however. Having consistency with a digital style or brand is just as important. What would you like your own personal online brand to convey?

Bonus tips: The enabler approaches

Besides these digital skills I would mention three enabler approaches which are not skills but rather mind sets or attitudes. These are:

  • Be open to learn. As the late Steve Jobs said, ‘stay hungry, stay foolish’. Being genuinely curious to trying new ‘things’, practices, technologies, disciplines that you may not know a great deal about. This is to protect you from ‘this is the way we’ve always done things’ syndrome. Break your routines, routinely.
  • Critically self-reflect. Look at yourself from the inside out and also ask a group of trusted people of their constructive critical view. Use tracking tools to see your progress (or lack of) objectively.
  • Manage your cognitive load. The digital world is an ever-changing and always-on beast so for balance it’s important to maintain a sustainable digital drive without digital burnout. Instead participate in non digital recreational activities (sports, the arts, etc) to keep a level of equilibrium.

What do you think are the mission critical digital skills to stay relevant in a world in beta? 

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< The beta blog | Dec 3, 2014

(Video) The world in beta at FT Innovate

On the 19th November I spoke at FT Innovate, the two-day Financial Times’ event at Mayfair’s Millennium Hotel on how digital disruption is impacting every business in every industry.

The FT is renowned for organising stellar business events and in this case it was no different with some of the great and the good from a range of brands and industry verticals all discussing the rapid advancement of technological innovation.

The theme of the event was appropriately titled ‘The Digital Big Bang’ and my talk followed the excellent Baroness Shields, chair of Tech City and digital advisor to the Prime Minister who was interviewed by the technology, media and telecoms editor for the FT, Ravi Mattu.

My presentation covered what we at PwC have codenamed the world in beta (which is the name of this website too of course) where we believe that every company regardless of sector has to, to some extent, become a software and technology company to cope with the demands of a constantly changing world.

It’s a fast-moving and exciting area for us as a firm and I’m thankful that the FT has kindly provided me with the video of my presentation that I can share with you here. Thanks also to everyone who tweeted about the talk as I delivered it. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Please have a watch and let me know what you think either in the comments or on Twitter where you can find me at @_carlogagliardi.

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< The beta blog | Nov 25, 2014

Using Google Glass to fight crime

Wearable technology is set to impact industries of all kind and recent PwC research found that sales of wearable devices will hit 19 million by the end of this year. While it's still early days wearables will become part of the workplace much like the laptop, smartphone and tablet has over the years. 

Forward-thinking organisations of all kinds are embracing and experimenting with wearable technology in many ways. One of which is Dubai Police Force who have been testing Google's head-mounted wearable device, Glass, to help fight crime. We spoke with the CIO and director of smart services at Dubai Police, Colonel Khalid Nasser Alrazooqi on his experiences on using Glass and on wearable technology in general. 

PwC UK: Can you please explain your role in the Dubai Police Force and what it entails?

Khalid: I am a general director of the smart services at Dubai Police where we have 4 strategic goals: 

1.The prevention and reduction of crime rates

2.Detection of crimes and the arrest of criminals

3.Readiness to deal with crises and disasters effectively

4.To control the roads securely 

The General Department of Smart Services supports the above by providing all necessary means of technological infrastructure, systems, software and electronic services.

How did the idea of using Glass to fight crime come about?

Dubai Police has a long history of embracing advanced technologies and is the first, at Arab World level, to introduce "Electronic Services” and use GPS in police patrol. We have a dedicated team that studies and acquires the latest technology for test use and pilots case studies in our environment of which Google Glass is one of them.

What have been the results of using Glass so far?

Google Glass is still not officially available on the market as a production wearable device and thus it has its strengths and weakness. We have found in our testing that Glass communication with a server is impressive and it is very easy to capture an incident instantly and send it to the server for analysis. On the other hand, the battery life of Glass is weak and does not stand the Dubai heat very well.

The jury is still out as to whether Glass will gain mass market among consumers but we're increasingly seeing more valid uses for it in a commercial/government setting. What are your thoughts on this?

The City of Dubai has set a strategy to become the smartest city in the world and this strategy will reflect on all government entities to utilise the latest technology. However, it is very early to judge how well Glass will gain market share especially since it is yet to have an official consumer release and the device we have today is a developer version. In addition, we still haven’t seen its implication on laws and policy in the country.

What's your view on the wearable technology space in general? Room for growth or a passing fad? 

I think Smartphone devices have reached their max, this is the time and maybe the era of wearable technology.

Find Khalid on Twitter @KhalidAlrazooqi

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< The beta blog | Nov 11, 2014

Digital technologies are allowing insurers to take customer connection to a new level

In the mid-2000s price comparison websites changed the insurance market. They shifted power into the hands of the customer by providing the ability to access and compare information and research for free. But since then insurers have wrestled with the challenges faced by the digital age. Insurers have struggled to build customer loyalty in what is now a highly price conscious and high-switching UK market, and many have struggled to engage customers to meet their changing demands.

It is no longer acceptable to think of ‘an insurance customer’. Customers’ experiences are being transformed by online retailers, search engines, social networks and other industries. Because of these experiences, customers are justifiably demanding more from their insurers.

And insurers can no longer ignore these threats from other industries because these companies are now their competitors. Our data suggests there is a growing customer demand to buy from alternative providers. 18% of customers are prepared to buy an insurance product from an internet search provider, 15% would buy from an online retailer whilst 5% would buy from a social network.

The UK market is one of the most digitally mature in the world. 86% of customers conducted some kind of online research, while that converts to only 50% of insurance policies that are bought online. Insurers have a huge opportunity to bridge that gap. Customers not only want to buy online but also to interact with their policy online, when it is convenient for them. Customers don’t think in terms of ‘channels’ and instead think about their how best to achieve their goal. They want to communicate with their insurer by phone, email, online and on social networks and expect a service that meets their goals and achieves the outcomes they’re looking for as simply and easily as possible. Above all they want a service that is tailored to their needs.

Insurers need to break away from a one touch per year relationship, digital provides a way to connect with their customers in new ways, and use it to provide a highly personalised service. For years insurers have prioritised risk data, rating factors and product development over listening to their customers and providing the experience they demand.

The digital insurer of the future must look beyond seeing digital as an add-on, and instead see it as a key driver of change for their entire business. Insurers don’t need a digital strategy, they need a business strategy fit for the digital age. 

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< The beta blog | Nov 10, 2014

10 ways drones will impact society

Last week I wrote a blog on world in beta asking if society is ready for the oncoming use of commercial drones in numerous industries from retail to manufacturing. While still early days, the use of unmanned flying objects is set to change the world in which we live. Here we look at 10 ways drones will impact society. 

1.Drone Traffic Regulations –Gone are the days of being able to fly a drone at will, even now, you have to follow the law of the land. Moving forward authorities will be turning their attention to drones specifically and the space will become increasingly regulated.

2.Drone Hijacking – With Amazon and Dominoes looking at using Drones in their SCM cycle, it is feasible that soon there will be large amounts of goods being moved by drone. It’s only a matter of time before someone tries to hijack your drone for a free pizza or a free Ipad.

3.Employment – Drones have the potential to supersede large amounts of courier roles, and there is the possibility that there will be many redundancies. Conversely there will be a need for more technically skilled people to manage and maintain an efficient drone delivery network. Whether the UK has the labour pool for this type of work is up for debate.

4. The end of the “We have something for you” card –With a drone’s ability to deliver day or night, at a time of your convenience, gone are the days of having to re-arrange a courier or visit your local Royal Mail depot with a “we have something for you” card.

5.Last mile disruption: Last mile courier companies, who deliver from final transport hub to final destination, will be massively affected by drones, with short deliveries now made even easier by drones.

6.No more clear skies – Our skies are no longer going to be empty wide spaces of blue or grey (in the case of London), they are going to be a chockablock ‘droneways’.

7.Make room for drone stations – With the widespread use of drones, we should expect the introduction of drone docking station in our cities and towns. These are places to for drones to refuel/recharge, as well as pick up and drop off goods.

8.Drone terrorism – Cyber terrorism and crime is on the rise, and with more and more drones in the air, there is potential for these to be hijacked for terrorist use. The payload doesn’t even need to be explosive, fast and heavy flying objects can do enough damage by themselves. 

9.Drone economics – The economics of drones is going to govern and affect a lot of decisions in the retail market. This will in turn have an impact on the price of commodities.

10.Drone throne – A more light hearted possibility is the idea of drone wars and drone gaming, pitting drones against each other as a sport.

The applications and possibilities engendered by drones are endless, and merely limited by our own imagination. How do you think drones will impact society? 

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< The beta blog | Nov 5, 2014

We don’t need new digital taxes, we need an international tax system fit for the Digital Age

The ways in which global businesses are taxed has been on the front pages more in the last couple of years than during the whole of the rest of my career combined. There’s a perception that international businesses, particularly those of a more virtual nature, are paying less tax than they ought to. International tax is pretty complicated stuff and so, if they are paying less, this isn’t down to lack of effort on the part of taxing authorities: it’s just that the rules, when properly applied, can give results that many think look odd.

We’re now half way through a project being run by the OECD called BEPS (Base Erosion and Profit Shifting)which has recently issued seven interim reports, with the final eight reports due out in about a year’s time. The first BEPS report was on the Digital Economy and considered whether we need new taxes to deal with the digital businesses which have been getting themselves on the front pages.

So what has this to do with the OECD? Beginning in the 1920s, the nations of the world have established tax treaty networks to eliminate the unfairness of the double taxation that arose on cross-border trade. As the international tax system has become more established, the inequity of double taxation has been reduced, however, the BEPS concern is that the pendulum has started to swing more towards the apparent inequity of non-taxation.

Although the premise of the Digital Economy working party was that there are “Digital Economy businesses” (the ones on the front pages) which need new tax rules, pretty quickly they concluded that Digital just means “using modern communications technology” and, surprise, surprise, all businesses are at it – some just do it better than others. In tax terms, this gets you to the conclusion that an international tax system designed in the 1920’s for the international communications of that time (trains, boats and telegraph) does not cope well with the modern world: hence the title of this blog.

Whilst it will be a year or so before we know where these changes will take us, the Digital Economy report does give a vision as to what the future may look like. It does this by setting out what aspects of the tax rules need to change. At a very high level, the changes would make it easier for a company based in one territory and selling into a second to become liable to taxes in that second territory. There is, of course, a lot a technical detail behind this broad statement.

One of these details is the way in which the Permanent Establishment rules operate (i.e. what threshold of activity needs to be crossed before a company selling from country A to customers in country B has to declare taxable profits in country B).

The draft report of the Permanent Establishment working party has just come out for comment and this gives us a first clue as to whether or not the Digital Economy report contains the blueprint for the future of the international tax system. The number of references to the Digital Economy report (and its recommendations) in the Permanent Establishment draft paper suggest that, yes, the recommendations made by the Digital action group are being taken seriously by the other working parties.

I’m not suggesting that anyone should change their business model and tax arrangements based on as yet unwritten rules (although I would give the matter serious thought if you’re making changes for other reasons), but I do think it’s worth keeping a weather eye out for these changes and doing some simple scenario planning based on the more likely outcomes.

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< The beta blog | Nov 4, 2014

Four ways big data is transforming the finance industry

If you are a finance professional, should you care about ‘big data’ and will it have any impact on how you do your job?

Not surprisingly the short answer is ‘yes’. The advent of big data – an umbrella term which includes new sources of detailed data on all aspects of enterprise activity – is already transforming the role of the finance function and how it goes about supporting the business.

Why? Because big data allows finance teams to build a much more holistic view of how the business is performing, and provide more complete, better insights to support strategic decision making.

Here are four examples:

1. Evaluating performance and return on investment: In a big data world, an evaluation of a new product launch includes not only the sales numbers and development costs, but which customers purchased the new product, the knock-on impact on other products, what consumers and the market thought about the product via social media, what operational issues affected the launch, even whether external factors such as the weather impacted on sales. The net result: finance can provide insight into why the product launch performed as it did, not just what happened. And this could have a huge impact on whether the launch was seen as a success (or failure).

2. More proactive risk management: big data can transform finance’s understanding of risks. For example, through collating a wide range of external data sources (media reports, sanctions lists, company reports, social media feeds etc.) some Finance teams have started to continuously monitor supplier and counter parties, enabling them to react much faster to emerging issues. Internal audits are becoming more effective through joining up data to understand the whole context behind a series of transactions and building a better picture of compliance risks in real time, utilising detailed transaction data, internal documents and communications history, external market data and so on. Hence finance teams are becoming proactive risk managers, staying ahead of risks instead of reacting to them.

3. Safeguarding data asset values: Businesses are increasingly recognising that their data is a strategic asset and has value. Finance is well placed to become the overall custodian of the organisation's data asset, both to evaluate its monetary value, and to ensure data across the whole organisation meets quality standards to support this valuation. This latter role will become increasingly important in the big data world, particularly as the provenance and reliability of data coming from a much wider range of sources will need to be rigorously tested and assured.

4. Better models: One side effect of the explosion in data has been the proliferation of tools that are able to cope with analysing such volumes. It is now possible for finance teams to run much more extensive and granular modelling scenarios across their data, to improve the quality of decision making. We are seeing finance functions moving away from a traditional approach to testing worst, expected and best case scenarios and instead, running simulations across all possible scenarios to get a much more accurate view on the spread of risk, enabling a more informed debate about where the business should be investing its money.

So big data is driving change in the world of finance. Underpinning this change in approach is a change in skill sets and capabilities. Are we near the point where data science skills could become as important to a finance professional as financial qualifications?

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< The beta blog | Nov 3, 2014

Drones are coming but are we ready?

In recent years and months there has been a lot of hype around drones and their possible application. Numerous companies, from Amazon to Disney, have filed patents and are conducting research, with a view to commercialising this technology. Drones are no longer confined to the military, and the question now is when, rather than if, they will become widespread in the consumer market.

Moore’s law dictates:

“Over the history of computing hardware, the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years”

This exponential prediction of technological advancement is particularly apparent when we look at drones, and the leaps that have been made in recent years. Paired with the millennial generation’s seemingly exponential ability to accommodate and adapt themselves to the ever changing and evolving nature of devices, especially around computing, form factor and applicability, we can see an interesting dynamic forming.

Given the above, it’s only natural that we would expect this tech hungry, e-savvy generation to adapt to this new entity which is going to be introduced into their day-to-day lives. Amazon seems to have taken the lead by releasing their testing plans to deliver packages, and have even gone as far to say, regulation dependent, they are ready to deliver packages with drones. Introduction of a disruptive technology, in this case commercial use of drones, creates a ripple effect of sorts. With Amazon leading the way, and others forced to follow or fall, we can expect to see a complete upheaval of the logistics and SCM industry.

Standing in the way of widespread use of drones, is firstly the cultural status quo and its attitude to the use of drones, and secondly stringent Air traffic regulations. The public are no strangers to the concept of automated flight, with numerous works of fiction in the media portraying such a reality, and they are now more than ever open to new technology. In regards to regulation that stifles technological innovation, we need only look to the music industry to see that burying your head in the sand is the road to ruin. The scene is set for a massive cultural and technological shock, and the norm could soon be that every individual will have personal control of their own drone.

In enabling this change, lies a multitude of challenges. NASA has started to tackle the problem of drone traffic, and is developing a DTC (Drone Traffic Controller). This though, is probably one of the easier problems to tackle. Other more poignant challenges that will require some thought are around the issues of privacy, safety and terrorism. Increasingly sophisticated cyber-crime, and the implications of this for drones, is also cause for concern.

In conclusion, the immense amount of value that drones could potentially add, to industries from agriculture to retail, as well as to consumers, mean that any challenges or potential pitfalls are surely worth overcoming. The technology is here, however, the key challenge is going to be shifting our current perception around drones, and accepting them as a part of our day to day lives. If we are indeed ready for drones, then the sky is the limit to where this can take us. 

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