Drones: From military applications to precision farming, the sky’s the limit

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Drones could help cement the UK as the place for technology companies to build businesses, argues Tom Butterworth.

Drones featured as one of our innovation and technology predictions for 2018, as 2017 saw the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) industry really take off. Beyond its roots in military applications, the employment of drones in inspecting infrastructure, precision farming, aiding the emergency services and radioactive mapping are just some of the civil uses where they are boosting productivity, increasing safety and lowering costs.

The sector has been identified as a priority in the UK government’s Industrial Strategy and new legislation relating to it was introduced in the summer of 2017. Working with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the government is actively looking to help commercial drone users grow their businesses to reflect the needs of an emerging market it states is worth over £102 billion globally.

An exploding market

With a recent Verdantix report predicting that spending on drones in the European market will grow five-fold in the next six year – from €197 million in 2017 to €1 billion in 2023, the numbers are considerable for this burgeoning sector. Similarly, Goldman Sachs forecast in 2016 that the total spend on drones in construction, agriculture insurance and infrastructure inspection between 2016 and 2020 would be almost $20bn, with retail and consumer global sales of 7.8million drones, totalling around $3.3bn, in 2020.

The rapid adoption of drones for commercial uses has been driven and enabled by a range of factors, including the versatility and cost-effectiveness they bring to other industries. As take-up has increased, production costs have fallen and further increased the market for drones. CEO, James Dean, of UK-based startup, Sensat, announced at September’s AI Summit in San Francisco their plans to cut the price of drone data by 90% to enable better access and remove the cost-barrier to entry for many businesses.

Corporates are also active in this sector. Amazon filed for a US patent in 2015 for vertical, beehive-like towers that would serve as fulfilment centres for its delivery drones to take off and land in urban areas. Whether these designs become a reality or not, they are an indication of how seriously UAVs are being considered looking forwards.

It is interesting to note an observation from Principal Analyst, Malavika Tohani, in the Verdantix 2017-2037 forecast. The research and consultancy firm envisages the most rapid annualized growth in the 2018 to 2022 period, meaning players in the European drones market would need to establish their position swiftly to benefit from the first phase of rapid expansion. (Source of comment and details of this report from this 4-traders article.)

Legislation and stimulation

The UK government’s 2017 consultation response on the safe use of drones demonstrates the importance of this emerging global sector. Amongst other measures, the government is in the early stages of working with industry partners and regulators to explore developing a national architecture for drone traffic management, known as Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM). This is an issue startups have already been working on. Altitude Angel, for example, has developed GUARDIANUTM, which allows drones and drone apps to be connected to an airspace management system that delivers dynamic, personalised geo-fences that can also react to manned aviation.

Safety and privacy

The lack of a UTM system to monitor drone movements is one of the biggest challenges facing commercial drone applications at present. The current UAV Pathfinder Programme has selected companies conducting research and testing towards enabling UAVs to routinely travel Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) within controlled UK airspace by 2020. The findings will be put towards drafting legislation that aims to create policy and the legal and regulatory framework to drive growth in the private drone sector, facilitate public-sector adoption, and to address safety, security, privacy and data-protection concerns.

Subsectors

As utilisation of the UAV sector becomes more widespread, specialist services arising around it relating to operational, commercial, safety, legal and technical aspects are increasingly required. Consortiq and DroneX are two of the more developed drone companies offering a range of drone services. These range from custom-built hardware and software to consultancy services, regulatory compliance advice to filming. Consortiq also offers training to achieve an Unmanned Aircraft Qualification to demonstrate sufficient competency to obtain a “Permission for Commercial Operation (PfCO)” from the CAA.

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The region around Bristol and Bath has become a key location for the UAV industry. This can be largely attributed to the presence of Europe’s largest robotics lab, the Bristol Robotics Lab (BRL), which was formed following a partnership between the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and the University of Bristol. DroneX, ImiTec and Marble are just some of the UAV startups in the area that spun out from BRL or either of the two universities.

Conclusion

Ensuring public safety and privacy are just two of the challenges that this hugely beneficial evolving technology, and integrating it into existing airspaces alongside manned aerial vehicles, will continue to pose. However, as with other new and desirable tech sectors, a growing ecosystem of hardware, software and related-services solutions and vendors are emerging to help harness its benefits and overcome obstacles to safely integrating it into existing operations.

The government sees drones and their applications as a key opportunity to cement the UK as the place for technology companies to build businesses. Planned legislation and regulatory frameworks combined with advances in Artificial Intelligence and machine learning will only serve to enhance and bolster this potentially extremely lucrative sector.


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