Flying into the future: drones make their mark

July 2nd, 2017, Published in Articles: Energize, Articles: PositionIT


Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, are more than simply hobbyists’ toys or military hardware. Although they can be, and often are, used for recreational purposes as well in security-related applications, the latest versions are being used in various commercial, environmental, industrial, surveying and agricultural applications.

Drones Conference 2017, which was held at Emperors Palace, Gauteng, on 28 and 29 June, brought together business people, engineers, miners, entrepreneurs and media experts: people with varied needs and potential applications for this new technology.

The conference provided delegates with a platform for open discussion and an opportunity to learn from knowledgeable speakers who gave presentations on such topics as the licencing requirements and regulatory frameworks for the use of drones; the need for proper controls in commercial airspace to ensure safety in aviation; and the types of insurance drone operators might require.

Delegates were told that in 2016 there were 2,8-million drones in private use and a further 174 000 being used commercially. Those figures are apparently expected to grow to 3,4-million private and 500 000 commercial drones by 2020.

Drone technology is developing quickly, with greater levels of complexity being integrated into smaller, lighter modules. Some drones are designed to operate in dusty and wet environments, making them ideal for applications where harsh conditions could prevent proper observations being made. Such drones are often fitted with thermal, as well as optical, cameras to enhance their usefulness.

Practical applications, such as tower and powerline inspection and monitoring; land surveying and the creation of maps using drone-sourced imagery; surveillance for public safety and security; agricultural pest control; and the use of drones in photographic media production are becoming common-place.

Conference delegates were shown examples of how drones are used to collect images using specialised cameras and powerful lenses. Using drones in certain applications saves money, protects property and improves productivity.

One example is the distribution of specially-bred moths over citrus trees. These moths attack and destroy the insects which infest the fruit, making it unsaleable. The drones, which can fly lower and slower than conventional aircraft, can distribute the moths among the trees without injuring the moths or the trees. This method of pest control is environmentally friendly since no insecticides are used.

Other examples include the use of drones for the accurate mapping of provincial or municipal boundaries; enabling surveyors and city-planners to accurately design future residential, industrial and commercial areas without having to spend many tens of man-hours gathering the information manually.

In the wind-power industry, flying too close to a wind turbine could cause the device to collide with the turbines’ blades, destroying the drone and causing serious damage to the turbine. Therefore, fitting a drone’s camera with a 30-times optical lens can provide detailed information about the condition of wind turbines, electricity pylons, powerlines and insulators, and cellphone towers from a safe distance without interrupting the operation of the equipment being inspected.

Using a drone for this application is apparently significantly cheaper than using any other form of aerial inspection and far more accurate than ground-based observations.

New drones are also being fitted with ever-increasing levels of processing power. A newly developed transponder, dubbed ADS-B, automatically identifies the vehicle as a drone and broadcasts its altitude, heading and airspeed. Any aircraft with similar equipment can receive this information which the pilot can use to avoid a collision with the drone. Some drones can even detect the presence of another aircraft in its vicinity and automatically take evasive action.

Delegates were also shown how drones are used in the film industry. A television advertisement, showing a speeding vehicle in a forest, was filmed by a drone-mounted camera, remotely operated by a drone pilot and a cameraman.

The future of drones could include personal mobility too. Delegates were shown pictures of a vast number of passenger-carrying drones – some still on the drawing board, with others in development. Apparently Toyota is working with another Japanese company to produce a flying car based on drone technology, while still another company is developing an electrically powered vertical takeoff and landing aeroplane.


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