Drones have been elevated from the hobbyist’s plaything to serious business, as a range of industries set their sights on the technology’s commercial benefits.
You can’t help but notice that drones are hot press right now. Drones – also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs – have received publicity for playing a useful part in everything from shark spotting on Bondi Beach to photographing large properties in all their glory (topless sunbathers included).
However, behind the headlines serious movements and investments are being made to put what was once seen as a hobbyist’s technology to more professional and practical use. There are some commercial applications that particularly suit drone technology. Here are a number of examples:
The first and most dramatic application of drone technology is the attachment of cameras, to help photographers and film makers achieve a new and dramatic shot. Many other organisations are beginning to realise that there are a magnitude of cost savings to be made in using a drone instead of a helicopter to take aerial footage. Applications such as real estate, weddings and news coverage are all rapidly including drones in their arsenal.
However, some countries have regulatory and legal issues about how footage can be obtained. None more fractious than in the US, where a lack of clear regulations, new local authority laws and lawmakers are tripping over themselves to make a regulatory framework that works.
Search and rescue (SAR)
From firefighters to mountain rescue, a large number of public agencies are researching or adopting drones into their tool chest. Drones occupy a unique position in the matrix by filling the gap between ground operations and traditional helicopters. This opens up opportunities to search areas faster and for longer, by being far cheaper to run than traditional helicopters and aircraft.
Technology is the limiting factor to full-scale SAR deployment: short flight times and low camera resolutions are the main restrictions.
…or specifically, precision agriculture. Precision agriculture, as the name implies, involves farm management based on observing, measuring and responding to inter and intra-field variability in crops.
Japan has been a long-term user of drones in precision agriculture due to its unique geography and public trust of robotics. But this is moving further afield into countries where more traditional agriculture methods are used, as more and more enterprises look to adopt a less wasteful agricultural approach.
This will have cost and profit implications, and helps reduce the environmental impact of industrialised agriculture through the reduced use of raw materials such as water, pesticides and fertilizers. Drones are particularly effective in this role and the market for drones in agriculture is expected to be worth billions in the US alone. In countries where resources such as water are scarce or expensive (such as Australia and the Middle East), precision agriculture is set to be a real focus in coming decades.
Traditional high resolution surveys by helicopter or plane are typically costly and take a long time to organise. Drones are rapidly taking their place. They can fly GPS-precise routes over often complicated landscapes and, with the adoption of precise stabilisation systems and better software, often give a better result. Drones are much cheaper to operate and can be deployed very quickly. Much of the detailed disaster mapping in Nepal recently was all done by drone.
Mining and archaeology
As drone airframe design advances, we are seeing increasing adoption of sensor equipment, to service the data requirements of the business. Examples of these payloads include: high definition optics, infrared, ground penetrating radar, ultrasound, magnetometers and other scientific equipment.
Of particular interest is LIDAR (short for ‘light detection and ranging’), which allows very precise three-dimensional maps to be constructed of sites that were previously inaccessible to helicopters and aircraft. Often this is used in conjunction with other spectrum analysis tools to allow miners and archaeologists to see much more than they would have done previously, allowing more precise digging to take place. As this technology is also cheaper, smaller sites and operations can be analysed in more depth.
Last mile deliveries
Many post and delivery services are looking to adopt drone technology for logistics. However, this is currently fraught with difficulties and risk – technical, regulatory and environmental.
There are business drivers for being able to use drones in the last mile, as cost economies mean some previously uneconomical routes can now be serviced profitably. Many such routes exist in the developing nations where infrastructure is lacking. Even in Switzerland, Swiss Post is actively pursuing this technology to allow deliveries to remote areas that get cut off by snow or avalanches in winter.
Natural disasters have seen a demand for this type of drone use as well. GPS precision allows delivery of emergency packs to families in a local area when all road routes have been cut off. The added advantage is that helicopters are freed up to focus on medical evacuation and other transportation duties.
A range of businesses are starting to see the opportunities that drone technology represents. To some, it can fundamentally change a number of their business processes. To others, it is an opportunity to improve profitability or even expand into new markets. The crucial factor is in understanding the advantages and pitfalls of the technology in order to help them make the best decisions for their business.
Euan Ramsay is a former Cyber Security Manager at PwC Switzerland.