The growth in the profile of drones has surely by now moved out of the folder marked ‘fad’. Where once flying model aircraft was seen as a fairly niche hobby, enjoyed by men with sensible jackets and thick-rimmed glasses, now seemingly everyone wants to get in on the drone act.
Firms like DJI, Parrot and Yuneec offer a huge range of drone options to suit any pursuit. From high-end, high tech examples designed for cinematographers through to tiny, hand-held craft tasked only with capturing the perfect selfie, consumers are slowly waking up to the exciting possibilities offered by drones.
Drones have been used to deliver pizza, film Hollywood blockbusters and help sell houses. They can be programmed to follow you, to take photos remotely when you gesture to them, and to fly home automatically in emergencies. And then there’s drone racing, which is attracting huge sponsorship, pays its racers extremely well, and now can be seen on major television networks.
But, like with most major technological advances, the growth of drone tech has its roots in the industrial world. In the same way that we have the military to thank for the GPS in our phones and sat-navs, advances in consumer drone technology are driven largely in ways you could never even have imagined.
In South Africa, an un-named national park is using drone technology to protect endangered African rhinos from poachers. A collaboration between Cisco and Dimension Data saw the park equipped with various connected sensors, CCTV and drones, enabling rangers to monitor and record activity remotely.
The technology is tasked with, among other things, monitoring perimeter fences to ensure poachers aren’t cutting their way into the park. Any offenders will be spotted before they reach the animals, thus reducing the chances of anything harmful or illegal occurring. There’s plans to roll these packages out to other national parks in the area, with data shared remotely between each park in an effort to increase effectiveness.
Drones are also used extensively to carry out inspections or to survey and map terrain in harsh or hazardous environments. Power lines, oil rigs, mine fields; the benefits to the health and safety of human workers are clear. Why send a human up a pylon to assess a fault when it takes a camera-equipped drone 10 seconds to get up there?
They’re used in the agriculture and oil & gas industries. They’re used in crisis-hit areas to do things like delivering medicines or putting out wildfires. There’s even examples of drones being used to weave high-tensile wire structures, like giant spider webs, which could eventually be used to construct housing.
What’s interesting is the parallel growth of Industry 4.0, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and big data. We have these two emerging stories in tech, destined to find ways to complement one another, yet in reality we’re still merely exploring the outer reaches of their combined potential.
Using the agriculture example, it’s not hard to picture a scenario where an autonomous drone could monitor a series of fields, building a profile of which crops reside where. Using this data it could then remotely target specific areas to spray pesticides only where required, as opposed simply blanket covering an entire field, thus reducing wastage and operating costs.
Or you could see a thermal-imaging device, connected to a drone, noticing dangerously high levels of heat coming from an area in a factory and autonomously activating the sprinkler system or notifying the emergency services. These are pretty basic examples but you can see where the connections lie.
As we’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog, Industry 4.0 and IIoT are largely data driven. One device collects data and communicates it to another device which carries out a corresponding action. ‘If this then that’. When you consider a drone as just another sensor, the same as you’d find installed in factories and machines anywhere, you can begin to see where it fits in the automation ecosystem.
Israeli firm Airobotics has an interesting proposition for the industrial world; its Optimus ‘drone in a box’ package arrives in something resembling a small shipping container. Inside here, robotic arms change the drone’s batteries, install different payloads (e.g. cameras, winches) and extract the data provided from the aircraft for subsequent analysis. Everything here, from programming flight paths to take-off & landing, is completely automated. It can truly ‘run in the background’ without any human intervention.
Of course, one of the main barriers to drone take-up concerns the fledgling laws and regulations surrounding their use. Fears around safety and privacy understandably lurk in the background. Once you add automation to the mix, things become even more sensitive.
In the UK, there are published guidelines from the Civil Aviation Authority advising users how and where they can use their drones. But, as we saw with this example, guidelines will either be adhered to or not. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to police.
At this stage in the evolution of drones, there are a couple of clear areas in which technological improvements can be made. Battery life is probably highest on the list; perhaps we’ll look back in years to come and laugh at how we could only have our drones in the air for 15 minutes before they required recharging.
Yet for industrial use this is more pertinent. As new and interesting potential applications are dreamt up, so it figures the drones will be fitted with ever heavier and more complex payloads. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility to see robotic arms fitted to drones, or even apparatus for carrying humans. All of which requires more power, and better range. Not to mention increased reliability; a contact of mine – who is a professional drone pilot – commented how when the big brands launch new drones, we (the consumers) are effectively beta testers, such is the complexity of these modern units.
The issue of powering the drone is still key though. At the moment, operators need to balance the weight of the payload vs the required flight-time. Higher powered (or more efficient) batteries which mitigate against this are surely on the horizon, either in the form of improvements to existing LiPo batteries, or as a new technology.
What is clear is how drone use will continue to grow. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) in the States believes drones and drone-related technologies could be responsible for the creation of up to 100,000 new jobs there, and contribute an extra $82 billion to the US economy, by 2025.
However you look at it, drones are here to stay. The examples of drones being used for good, or to increase productivity, or to make work a safer place far outnumber the negative examples. Regulation will evolve over time, as you’d expect, to meet the ever-changing drone landscape, yet safety will remain paramount.
What’s important now is for industry to continue joining the dots between their eyes in the sky, their machines on the ground and all that data stored in the cloud. Harness that and the sky is no longer a limit.