Drones have a long history as killer machines providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance for war managers. But over the years, their appeal has continued to extend beyond the corridors of military power, with amateur hobbyists and experienced radio control enthusiasts being among key adopters.
Today, we have drones that are a unique blend of complex, military grade systems and ones built for the mass market. Equipped with advanced sense-and-avoid capabilities and sensors like thermal and multi-spectral cameras, these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are lighter, ‘smarter’, cheaper, and more user-friendly than ever.
No wonder businesses across different industries are increasingly adopting drones for a slew of commercial purposes, including for simplifying and automating complex workflows that entail increased operating costs and manual effort.
For instance, SkySpecs, a startup facilitating drone inspections for Infrastructure companies, claims such firms could reduce their overheads around wind turbine supervision by 50% through adoption of UAVs. Transitioning to drone-driven oversight would also eliminate the risks of accidents and fatalities associated with human inspection, UAV advocates argue.
And, the potential impact could be substantial, with PwC pegging the addressable market value of drone-based solutions at over $127bn, in terms of such solutions replacing businesses and labor in various industries. According to report released by Business Insider this year, revenues from drones sales will soar from just over $8bn in 2015 to more than $12bn by 2021.
What’s propelling drones?
Organizations, seeking real-time control and visibility into key aspects of their operations, today are embracing advanced aerial imagery and video technologies, as well as remote sensing and air surveillance tools. UAVs, enabled with next-generation sensors, faster computing speeds and enhanced data processing capabilities, have emerged as their best bet in this regard.
Other key factors driving the growing commercialization of drones include improvements in power systems, flight controls, communication technologies, payload systems, onboard edge analytics, and cognitive capabilities. Cloud and on-premise software platforms, open Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) for drone coding, and emerging solutions around Big Data and the Internet of Things (IoT) are also fueling this trend.
Furthermore, safety-conscious regulators are becoming more receptive to the idea of enterprises leveraging UAVs for core activities, reassured by the incorporation of geo-fencing and collision avoidance technologies into drones. Nevertheless, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) maiden operational rules concerning routine commercial use of UAVs, unveiled in August 2016, seek to ensure safety of people, properties and aircrafts by imposing caps around height and speed.
The IoT angle
The physical and digital worlds are increasingly converging, with companies aiming to effectively leverage the IoT solutions, alongside other disruptive technologies such as cloud, mobility and Big Data, for achieving key business goals. Against this backdrop, ‘smart’, interconnected drones could potentially play a significant role in fostering the growth of the IoT ecosystem. Described by some as ‘unattended sensors’, such UAVs can be accessed and controlled over the Internet, with the underlying aggregated data being sent to various cloud-based services.
In fact, drones are deployable across different locations, can carry flexible payloads, and measure just about anything from stockpiles and light pollution to effects of climate change. Emerging software platforms are helping companies such as DroneDeploy and U|g|CS control a fleet of UAVs from anywhere, and on any device. By connecting a 4G telemetry device to a drone’s avionics, DroneDeploy is able to orchestrate real-time data transmission, processing and sharing. SenseFly, meanwhile, has been able to reprogram on-mission drones for diverting them, and making them perform a different function in a designated area.
However, the real value of commercial drones lies in their analytics capabilities that can help companies generate meaningful, predictive insights on crucial operational levers, for example around structural integrity and equipment sustainability.
A sky of opportunities
Drones’ potential applicability pertaining to IoT have has increased dramatically in the last few years, spanning multiple sectors, including Agriculture, Mining, Law Enforcement, Manufacturing, Oil & Gas, Utilities, Media and Entertainment, and Infrastructure. A report released in 2015 by Business Insider projected a 19% annualized growth in market size for commercial and civilian drones between 2015 and 2020, as opposed to a 5% growth on the military front.
Let us take a look at some of the emerging use cases:
Agriculture: Agriculture companies are now harnessing UAVs to monitor crops for diseases, assess yields, and identify the need for fertilizers in distinct environments. Farmers, on their part, have begun using drones to gain greater visibility into their assets, for revenue maximization.
Construction: Several construction entities today rely on drones for site management, in terms of capturing, viewing and analyzing aerial imagery and survey data. U.S. startup Kespry has built a prototype drone that uses an NVIDIA deep learning module to classify assets such as construction vehicles and building materials.
Insurance: Underwriters of various financial contracts are starting to overhaul their risk monitoring, risk assessment, claims management and fraud prevention functions through adoption of drones. For instance, State Farm is exploring the use of UAVs for assessing potential roof damage during the claims reimbursement process. In fact, by combining drones with machine learning algorithms and other advanced data analytics tools, insurers can further improve their predictions of damages, and thereby ensure better, risk-adjusted product pricing.
Oil & Gas: Energy explorers and producers across the upstream and midstream segments of the industry value chain can harness drones for significantly reducing health risks posed to their workers. Plus, UAVs can be deployed by such companies for safer and quicker monitoring of locations including flare stacks, oil pipelines and offshore oil platforms.
Telecom: Some wireless carriers are considering using drones built by Dutch manufacturer Aerialtronics for cell tower maintenance. These drones–powered by Watson, IBM’s Big Data platform–help inspection teams gain a 360-degree overview of towers, without any manual involvement, thus eliminating the risk of fatalities. Watson’s visual recognition APIs can then analyze the images captured by the drone, thereby enabling easier detection of problems such as damaged cabling or equipment defects.
With the advent of ‘smart’, interconnected drones, businesses can now harness a wide range of spatial data including orthomosaic maps, elevation models, contours, profiles and volumes, to dramatically improve their decision making processes.
However, to realize the true potential of UAVs, enterprises will first need to overcome typical product engineering challenges around size, weight, power, durability, reliability and safety. They will also have to work in tandem with peers and regulators to foster adoption of best practices and common standards.
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