Since 2010, the growth in the use of drone technology has been gathering pace at an incredible rate. When first developed in the mid-1930s drones were highly experimental and expensive. Today, they are not only used for a wide variety of commercial applications, but have also become a popular and affordable piece of consumer tech.
So, are we on the verge of a Drone Revolution?
How many people are using Drones?
In the UK, in May 2021, there were nearly 4,500 certified commercial drone operators of small drones and 1,751 operators of larger drones. These are businesses using drones for serious commercial applications – applications deemed to present an equivalent safety risk to that of manned aviation.
However, these are now dwarfed by the number of hobbyists. The CAA estimated there were over 130,000 UK drone users at the end of 2019 – the vast majority of which were hobbyists rather than commercial users.
In a larger market like the USA, the numbers are even higher. The FAA figures show that there were nearly 875,000 registered US drone users in May 2021.
Drones are now very affordable, and a hobbyist can buy a decent drone to easily get up and flying for under £1,000 these days.
Research by Drones Direct shows that hobbyists are mainly using their drones for filming video (77%) or taking photographs (75%). The typical profile of these people is mostly male (96%) and middle aged (52% are aged over 45). It is also clear that these are hobbyists using their drones quite frequently (58% fly at least once a week).
There would appear to be a strong link between drone use and photography, with two thirds of drone users are also keen on photography. Around one fifth of the adult population list photography as a hobby (that’s potentially millions of people), so the potential for future growth, just based on current use patterns, is clearly significant.
Drones have been used extensively by the military for decades now and much of the impetus for the development of this technology has come from the development of such applications.
The military will no doubt continue to provide an important impetus for innovation in drone technology. However, these days, a wide variety of other commercial applications are emerging. These are likely to prove increasingly important markets for drone tech suppliers in the future. Key commercial areas where drones are now being used would include:
- Journalism & film making; drones are increasingly providing the primary way for obtaining aerial shots.
- Disaster management; in gathering information and getting emergency supplies to isolated areas following disasters such as earthquakes.
- Search and rescue; when fitted with enhanced imaging and thermal cameras, drones can play a critical role in search and rescue operations.
- Mapping: drones can map terrain features in locations that are difficult to cover by other means.
- Law enforcement and surveillance; drones provide a relatively unobtrusive means of surveillance and allow observation to be undertaken without the need for a physical human presence.
- Weather monitoring and storm tracking.
- Building inspections; drones allow construction workers to view the exterior of large structures and gain detailed photographs of places that are difficult to physically access by other means.
- Inspections of processing plants (e.g. for the oil and gas industry); any large structure can now be inspected by drones. Detailed images, including thermal ones, can be taken of inaccessible areas, allowing maintenance engineers to view the state of equipment without being physically present.
- Shipping and delivery; at present applications are being developed that focus mainly on the distribution of small packages. However, in the future, it may even be possible to transport larger cargos using large drones.
Virtually any application involving observation, or transport and delivery of small items are potentially suited to drone use. One thing is for certain. As the price of the technology reduces and the technology improves, it will become increasingly practical to perform a wider variety of commercially viable applications.
So, what further developments should we look out for in the future?
Logistics – Amazon Prime Air
Amazon have been working to develop a fleet of drones to deliver small packages as part of its logistics network. One key potential advantage of such an approach comes from the fact that drones can avoid traffic and deliver packages by a more direct route (as the crow flies in some cases).
The service will be called Prime Air and is currently being tested in several countries. In the UK Amazon have recently doubled the size of their Prime Air team and we are likely to see the service launch in a matter of months rather than years.
Hydrogen is an emission-free fuel and has the advantage of keeping a drone airborne for longer. The technology first appeared in 2016 but we are now starting to see more hydrogen powered drones come onto the market. The capability to remain airborne for longer makes them particularly suited for applications such as agriculture, mapping and for disaster response in remote locations. Any application, in fact, where there is a need for a long flight time.
At present the primary barrier to hydrogen power is the cost but as prices come down and technology improves we can expect to see more hydrogen powered drones in the future.
AI and improved navigation
As more drones fill our skies it will become increasingly important for them to navigate their way around avoiding each other and various other safety hazards.
AI drones that use computer vision to detect and navigate their way avoiding other airborne objects and hazards are now starting to appear on the market. High performance on-board image processing coupled with other navigational aids will make this increasingly possible. At present, of course, such technology is expensive, but we can expect to see it become more commercially available over the next few years.
Drones all have a limited amount of flight time available to them. However, this can be prolonged significantly if a drone is able to land on a building or other high object and make its observations without needing to expend energy to remain airborne.
Various technologies are being developed to allow drones to do this; perhaps enabling a drone to ‘perch’ on a streetlight or to rest on the corner of a building. This would have the benefit of making a drone more stable whilst it is making its observations as well as conserving power.
Problems and dangers
Of course, as drones become more ubiquitous, they bring with them their own unique set of problems and challenges. Not least is the potential for this technology to interfere with existing air traffic or for it to be misused by criminals and even terrorists.
In 2019, the year before Covid cleared our skies of aircraft, UK aircraft pilots reported 91 confirmed incidents involving drones and a further 29 incidents that may well have been drones but were unidentified. This compares to only 4 confirmed incidents involving drones and 1 unconfirmed incident that were reported in 2010.
This has prompted the UK government to introduce a registration system in 2020 and to require users of certain types of drones to obtain specific certification. Now even hobbyists must hold a flyer ID and past a test to legally fly their drones in the UK.
Whilst such measures will no doubt serve to help minimise the danger of accidental incidents, the threat of criminal or terrorist misuse is a different matter. In warzones, drones are already used for surveillance, to disrupt airspace and even to deliver small explosives.
With new threats comes new technology. Countermeasures of various kinds are being developed, these include directed energy weapons with the power to disable drones using such techniques as lasers, particle beams or radio frequency waves. One of the latest uses high-powered microwaves to knock out a drone’s onboard electronics.
If future, we can expect to see measures of this kind deployed to protect airports and other sensitive potential targets.
It seems clear that the coming decade will see an increasing proliferation of drone technology. This technology has grown from the highly specialised and niche use of a decade ago to a stage where it is now beginning to experience mass commercial and consumer adoption.
The coming decade will see this technology becoming more ubiquitous as it develops further and the costs come down. The challenges faced by drone suppliers will be to keep developing the technology at a rapid pace whilst remaining conscious of the public safety concerns.
However, the future is bright and no doubt there are many potential applications out there that new technological advances will enable drones to exploit. There is also a potentially significant untapped consumer market. As the technology reaches out to a mass market, so manufacturers will need to think increasingly about their marketing, and building strong and distinctive brand image and awareness amongst potential customers.
It would seem that we are indeed on the verge of a drone revolution.
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