Looking at a drone-filled future

March 27th, 2015, Published in Articles: PositionIT


What do drones mean to your business, where will you find the next growth opportunity and, more importantly, will you find them before your competitors do? This article discusses themes such as, commercial applications, regulations and widespread adoption, industry applications and the future sky. Some of these developments will force companies to rethink their strategies and product portfolios.   

Commercial drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are a synthesis of aerial precision robotics, computer vision, and artificial intelligence technologies. UAVs are able to navigate semi-autonomously and perform a variety of tasks, most often involving imaging or payload-bearing capabilities, depending on their individual components. Governments and businesses have already identified or implemented UAVs for several uses.

The smartphone competitive landscape has driven incredible economies of scale, and, consequently, components of drone technology have become cheaper and more powerful. In addition to mobile communication chips and GPS, these components include advanced optical sensors, mobile processing and graphical capabilities, and accelerometers. In essence, open-source movements have laid the foundation for developing the navigation software. For example, The Linux Foundation sponsors the open-source Dronecode Project, which covers both autopilot and hardware development. Dronecode is also backed by key participants including Intel, Qualcomm, and 3D Robotics. These projects are making drone production and operation even more accessible. Yet the regulatory landscape is daunting, considering the major privacy and security concerns presented by drones, and public misconceptions are abundant. Most of these views stem from the United States’ use of combat and surveillance drones for international military operations. Nonetheless, the possibilities for drones are plentiful, and against the right legislative backdrop, they will become an important transformational technology.

Regulations impede widespread adoption

Government regulation will remain the top theme in conversations about drone use in 2015. While several countries have made progress towards legislation, it remains to be seen how ideas will translate to implementation, but trial programmes that are currently underway will set the pace for development.

In Europe, specific drone qualifications are required to operate commercially. European Commission (EC) guidelines, in fact, indicate drone use will be possible in limited instances from 2018. That said, a 2028 goal of full public and private integration of drones in both managed and unmanaged airspace has been set by the EC, and details can be found on the UAV steering committee’s roadmap. This integration should ensure that regular, civilian drone flight will be regulated and legislated. Additionally, air traffic management systems should be in place to monitor them alongside conventional aircraft.

The United States’ Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) roadmap for drones set a target of the end of 2015 to cover private and government drone use standards, which is no small feat considering military drone funding in North America is the highest internationally. At $2,6-billion, it is more than five times the next highest, Asia-Pacific ($493-million), according to Frost & Sullivan analysis. As of February 2015, only 28 commercial entities had been given drone licences by the FAA.

Several North African governments have reportedly developed drones for military use and public surveillance.  In this region, governments do not generally focus on regulating access to commercial aerospace. Drone licenses in many North African countries are a matter of money above safety concerns. In other words, commercial entities are granted licences solely on the basis of whether they can afford them. Public safety does not feature in their national dialogues about drone use. Thus, the revenue from licensing outweighs the risks considered.

China’s 2014 guidelines grant firms drone licences without qualification for operating UAVs less than 7 kg, but licences require specific qualifications for weights of up to 116 kg.The smaller category would include drones capable of handling a standard grocery shop. The second category would handle larger goods. Standardised package containers for drones are still in development, but once put on the market, they will increase the cross-compatibility of drone networks among a rapidly expanding industry of over 300 enterprises. Already the Chinese government is using drones for surveying and other environmental activities, including the successful 2014 deployment of drones used to spray smog-neutralising chemicals across Hubei province.

Industry applications

Drones have broad applicability across verticals, with many possible use cases that could transform existing systems. Here is a look at two of the most heavily impacted verticals, including example implementations and companies responsible.

Imaging, precision robotics, and data-driven agriculture

The United Nations reports that the global population is expected to exceed 9-billion by 2050. This staggering figure represents a 25% increase in today’s population. Considering that food scarcity is already a problem, great leaps in modern agricultural practice will be required to keep pace. According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), 80% of the future drones market will involve agricultural deployment.

Over the past few years, interest in UAVs within the agriculture sector has resurged, and the increasing availability and more manageable price of drones will have a serious impact on the efficiency of farming operations. For instance, optimal resource use will be enabled by smart data analysis. Additionally, unmanned aircraft will remove the problems and risks of traditional crop-dusting methods; these include low-flying planes, inaccurate chemical placement, and the need for take-off and landing points.

Yamaha was a key participant in the 1990s, with a huge market share of crop-spraying UAVs in Japan. These were the R-MAX unmanned helicopters, the first of which was released in the late ‘90s. Initially, the firm was approached by the Japanese government to create a product for automated precision agriculture, and over the last 20 years, Japan’s agriculture industry has seen a proliferation of the R-MAX UAVs. Currently, Yamaha reports that over 25 000 of its UAVs are used. However, Yamaha’s product has been superseded by modern drones, such as those produced by Precision Hawk and 3D Robotics. These companies pose aggressive price competition at about $25 000 per UAV, a fraction of Yamaha’s $80 000. The new models also benefit from improved component performance. These improvements include modern connectivity, autonomous control systems, sensors, and spatial awareness. Also, 3D Robotics uses an open-source platform for drone development, allowing for customized use across different agricultural applications.

Another major use case for agricultural drones is data-driven optimisation. This application also draws on advances in signalling and imaging technologies made by the mobile phone industry. Now, farmers can use low-flying drones to capture images of crops across multiple spectrums, for example, infrared. The data enables inspecting for infestations and disease, the effectiveness of fertilizer, and soil quality. This information is also available as a constant stream because the imaging drones are cost-effective, priced as low as $1000, and can be deployed multiple times a day. Effectively, farmers can optimise a number of key resources, increasing crop yield and reducing fertilizer and pesticide use. In this area of specialty, Precision Hawk is a key firm. Its background in data insights for the agriculture sector led to the advanced, smart UAVs it now provides.

Machine vision is already being used for ground-level precision robotics to identify weeds and infestations, and as this technology matures, drones will be able to analyse visual data on-board. Ultimately, sending the results to the farming robots will assist in performing ground-level cultivation.

Retail and logistics connections without roads

One-seventh of the global population does not have access to year-round road links, according to Andreas Raptopoulos, CEO of drone logistics operator Matternet. Limited road access presents a significant challenge to retail logistics and means that affected people are cut off from a variety of services, including eCommerce. Airborne delivery, however, will reduce the cost of reaching hard-to- access areas. In some cases, it will make logistics possible where they never were before. In particular, remote locations are often blocked by seasonal flooding, in places, for instance, like the heavily forested areas of Papua, New Guinea. So entrepreneurs and new sales opportunities will emerge globally in areas poorly served by road networks and with minimal regulation. Matternet is an influential company targeting places with access challenges. It hopes to operate in locations with unreliable road infrastructure, enabling fast transport for time-critical goods such as medicine. It will also enable a new generation of entrepreneurs from these areas that will transform regional economies. It is likely that in many of the places the company hopes to serve, it will have the benefit of lower regulatory hurdles.

The fate of retail depends on logistics technology. As the first eCommerce boom was enabled by modern air and ground networks, the second phase will comprise fleets of drones throughout the sky. Bricks-and-mortar retail outlets will undergo another transformation.  Increased pressure will stem from their loss of a unique advantage in providing consumers instant access to products. To be sure, they will need to create more value-added services and an improved retail experience. Amazon is the clear leader in this space, and for commercial drones in general, having announced Amazon Prime Air in December 2013. Prime Air is a same-day delivery service by drone. Currently on its 8th generation of drone in R&D, it has announced its ability to start flying as soon as regulators allow in the United States. Prime Air could potentially launch in the United Kingdom first, as commercial drone use outside of urban population centres is allowed. This prospect has already been demonstrated by on-demand services provider Bizzby.

The future sky

The future landscape for commercial drones is likely to be crowded. The variety and complexity of uses applied to the technology mean specific providers will continue to cater to diverse customers. The open availability of components also has a significant impact in this regard.

Globally, 2015 is likely to see broad introductions of international commercial drones. Many countries –  including the United States and several across Europe – will choose to open their skies in a careful and considered way. Others, such as China, may face challenges as they attempt to harness the industry’s productive power with limited standardisation of pilot quality. Additionally, the reduced cost of distribution combines well with a reduction in production costs, and through 3D printing and open-source product design, time-to-market has dropped exponentially. This change reduces the costs of market entry and will unleash a new wave of innovation and entrepreneurship. It will take successfully implemented crash-avoidance and machine-vision technology to clear the regulatory hurdles that remain in place. Once this happens, the sky is, quite literally, the limit.

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