Drones: Hype or Here to Stay?

In today’s high tech world, drones are becoming common place in a growing number of private sector markets, no longer limited to only the world’s most advanced military. As computer and electronic technology continue to become more powerful and become cheaper, more private companies are able to access and afford the technology to develop drones for private use. Some of the area where I have found innovation taking place in the development of drones are: security and surveillance, industrial and infrastructure inspection, shipping and delivery, precision agriculture, mining, search, rescue, and disaster management, and storm tracking and forecasting.

The first thing that people think of when they think of drones, is the military. The military has been developing drones for use in warfare for years and have some of the most advanced drones in the world. They use drones to spy on the enemy, intercept enemy communications, and more recently, they are using drones to deliver munitions to enemy targets. Because of the varying missions they are being designed for, the size and costs of military drones also vary. Some drones are small, man-portable units that are controlled by the soldier in the field to gather intelligence on the enemy. These drones are more similar to the drones that are available in the private market. For long-range missions, the military has developed large drones, the size of a full-sized aircraft, which are controlled from continents away that can deliver a wide range of munitions or long-range surveillance equipment[1]. Due to the high level of sophistication and costs, large drones are not see an often in the private sector.

Security and Surveillance

As I mentioned above, some of the first uses of drones in military operations were to gather surveillance on the enemy and this is one of the first private-sector uses of drones that I was able to find. Private companies are developing drones that are similar to military drones and marketing them to law enforcement and other government agencies to use as a means to gather intelligence from the air. Larger government agencies and police departments have been using helicopters for years, but the expense of owning, operating, maintaining, and staffing a helicopter is something that limits their use by large amounts of law enforcement agencies. The advantage of using drones over helicopters is primarily costs. Drones are allowing even the smallest of law enforcement agencies to gain access to aerial imagery that may provide vital intelligence for situations that may arise in today’s world. The downside of using drones over helicopters is the limited range that smaller drones can operate. Helicopters are able to remain in the air longer and quickly react to situations that may arise on the other side of the city.[2]

The recent increase in terrorist activities taking place across the world are also driving the use of drones in the security and surveillance market. Governments around the globe are spending more money and putting more resources behind the use of drones for law enforcement agencies.[3]

Inspection

Utility providers have also used helicopters for a long time to inspect their electric lines, and gas and oil pipelines. Power lines and pipelines are often placed in very remote locations and cover large distances, making it difficult for inspectors to access them on the ground. Historically, these companies would contract an external firm to provide aerial inspections, but drones are changing the way these companies are going about doing their inspections. Again, the cost savings of using drones over helicopters is the biggest advantage. Another advantage of using drones is the fact that they are autonomously operated and are able to function closer to dangerous locations where companies are not having to take the risk of having a person placed in harm’s way. A drone is able to get much closer to a high-voltage power line to provide inspectors a closer look at the lines and towers. The smaller size of a drone also has the advantage of being able to get into tighter spaces where a helicopter can’t go.[4]

The Global Positioning System (GPS) has also advanced to the point where even the smallest of drones are equipped with GPS sensors. Another advantage of using drones for inspection is that they can track the drones exact location in real-time. The drones can also be programmed to automatically follow GPS way points to make the long inspection process quicker.

Shipping and Delivery

Similar to a large military, larger corporations are providing a lot of the drive for the development of drones in the public sector. Amazon is one of the companies that is driving this development with the goal of delivering their goods directly to a customer’s door by use of drones. Currently, Amazon has to rely on the current postal service infrastructure that they do not control to deliver their products. Having their own door-to-door delivery system would be a huge advantage to Amazon, reducing their reliance on other organizations. Having their own delivery system would also reduce the time it would take customers to receive their purchases, increasing the demand for Amazon’s services and increasing Amazon’s market share in the retail market.

Because of the high-profile nature of Amazon’s development of a drone-delivery system, they are increasing the visibility of the need for regulations on the drone market. Currently, drones are being used in a very limited roll and are not as visible to the average citizen, but if drones are going to be delivering packages to your neighborhood, the flight paths of drones are going to have to be limited to reduce the chance of clouding the airspace. This brings up one of the biggest downsides of developing drones from the private sector and that’s the fact that changes in the law could have and instant and devastating effects. Laws are being passed already that are requiring registration for drones and placing a growing number of restrictions on their use. There is a large risk that a company will invest large amounts of time and resources to a technology that could be totally restricted to the point where it would not be profitable.

Precision Agriculture

In an article written by Christopher Doering that was published in USA Today online, ”drones are quickly moving from the battlefield to the farmer’s field — on the verge of helping growers oversee millions of acres throughout rural America and saving them big money in the process.” Currently, farmers are having to rely on satellite technology, aircraft, and physically walking their fields to find signs of insect problems and watering issues that can affect crop yields. A drone will be able to save them a large amount of money and save them substantial amounts of time. Drones will also allow farmers to tailor their use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers based on the needs at a specific point in a field that the drones will be able to constantly inspect. The possible use of drones in agriculture lead the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International to predicts that “80% of the commercial market for drones will eventually be for agricultural uses.”[5]

Mining

Mining is also an industry that is looking to use the services if unmanned drones to save costs. Along with using aerial drones to inspect the outside of a mine, companies are starting to use tracked drones to descend into mines where it has become too dangerous to send a person. Having a drone lost to a cave-in is by far cheaper than having to organize an entire rescue operation, and drones don’t have a family that will miss them either. Drones are also a good fit because they are able to collect mapping and condition data that can be further used to plan out the mining operation.[6]

Search and Rescue and Disaster Management

With recent natural and man-made disasters, companies are starting to make drones to aid in the search and rescue of victims and to be used as tools for disaster recovery workers. Usually when a disaster happens, helicopters and aircraft are flown in to help search for and rescue people affected by the disaster, but that takes time to organize the response and it takes a large amount of resources to make it happen. Having smaller, cheaper, and easier to use drones that can use video camera and sensors to locate victims is a faster and cost effective solution. Along with the smaller size and price, more cities and government agencies will have access to drones and this will drastically reduce the time it takes to deploy them in the field. Along with the search and rescue function, drones will also be able to monitor the conditions, helping officials make quicker and more informed decisions on how to react to changes in the situation.[7]

Similar to the use of drones in mining, drones can go where people just simply can’t go and that was the case in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan. Drones where able to reach places that were not safe for humans to go so vital data could be collected to help officials access the situation. [8]

Storm Tracking and Forecasting

It’s hard to determine if this is a private sector opportunity for drones when a lot of the storm tracking is done by the government and the military. Some of the drones used for this task are drones that have been handed down from military use to NASA, such as the Global Hawk.[9] The cost to operate these drones is actually high compared to the smaller, private drones, but the biggest advantage to their use is their ability to get into the eye of a storm without having to risk the safety of a pilot and the larger expense of operating a larger, manned aircraft. The unmanned drones used by NASA are still large enough to carry a wide range of sensors to collect and transmit critical date back to the forecasters on the ground so that proper steps can be taken to minimize the effects of acclimate weather.

Conclusion

Drones are starting to be used in more and more different arenas in the private sector and that trend does not seem to be changing. People are seeing them more and more and more people are taking an interest in experimenting with their usage. For now, the average person that is interacting with a drone is for recreation as a hobby, but as companies continue to develop drone technology as a tool for productivity, more companies will start using drones to perform vital business duties. Drones are a cheap alternative to much more expensive manned aircraft and because of the low costs, more and more jobs are evolving into unmanned jobs. The biggest threat to drones, are laws. As mentioned before, laws that restrict the usage of drones could instantly turn a new, thriving business endeavor into an extinct one.

[1] Weinberger, S. (2014). The ultra-lethal drones of the future. Retrieved November 03, 2016, from http://nypost.com/2014/05/17/evolution-of-the-drone/

[2] Bond, M. (June 5, 2014). MultiBrief: Law enforcement experimenting with surveillance drones. Retrieved November 03, 2016, from http://exclusive.multibriefs.com/content/experimenting-with-law-enforcement-unmanned-surveillance-drones/law-enforcement-defense-security

[3] UAV for civil security: Police drones, traffic control, monitoring, etc. (n.d.). Retrieved November 03, 2016, from https://www.microdrones.com/en/applications/areas-of-application/security/

[4] UAV inspection for the Power and Utility industries. (n.d.). Retrieved November 03, 2016, from http://www.thecyberhawk.com/inspections/utilities/

[5] Doering, C. (2014). Growing use of drones poised to transform agriculture. Retrieved November 03, 2016, from http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/03/23/drones-agriculture-growth/6665561/

[6] 10 Incredibly interesting uses for Drones – Drone Buff. (2016). Retrieved November 03, 2016, from http://dronebuff.com/uses-for-drones/

[7] Search & Rescue: UAVs / drones for fire service, monitoring etc. (n.d.). Retrieved November 03, 2016, from https://www.microdrones.com/en/applications/areas-of-application/search-and-rescue/

[8] Woollaston, V. (2014). Fukushima, the aftermath: Eerie drone footage reveals the apocalyptic wasteland of Japan’s abandoned east coast. Retrieved November 03, 2016, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2618828/Fukishima-aftermath-Eerie-drone-footage-reveals-apocalyptic-wasteland-Japans-abandoned-east-coast.html

[9] Richardson, B. (n.d.). Drones could revolutionize weather forecasts, but must overcome safety concerns. Retrieved November 03, 2016, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capital-weather-gang/wp/2014/04/25/drones-could-revolutionize-weather-forecasts-but-must-overcome-safety-concerns/

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