By now most people have seen the impressive videos of drones that are all over Youtube. There are stunt drones that can be raced, filming drones that can take aerial shots from hundreds of feet in the air, and a few companies are even using them for delivering parcels.
One thing that is certain is that the use of drones has significantly increased in the last 5 years, with the name once ubiquitous with death and destruction in a military sense, now it is thought of as a fun and innovative technology. There have certainly been issues with them though. There has been a huge backlash in the media about drones being flown too close to airports, putting hundreds of lives in danger as planes take off and land. However, the drone industry continues to grow despite this backlash, with the UK government predicting that the drone industry will be worth £102 billion by 2025.
Whilst the commonly held view is that drones are essentially a toy, the truth is that they are having a huge impact on businesses and organizations across the world and their economic and societal potential come not from people racing them or filming themselves from on-high, but in a number of different areas.
One area where they are already having a big impact is in conservation, especially when it is over a widespread area such as when studying deforestation or monitoring the populations of animals with large territories. One of the leading companies in this area are Conservation Drones who were founded in 2012. Dr Lian Pin Koh, founder of the company, describes the simple benefits by saying, ‘The kind of drones we use are able to fly pre-programmed missions autonomously over a distance of around 100 km, getting high definition videos and high quality photographs of up to ~1-2 cm pixel resolution.’ Once the drones have taken these large number of photos they can be stitched together to give a quick and detailed picture of a large area. What is especially important for conservation charities is that using drones for this work is considerably cheaper and quicker than existing alternatives, which are essentially either a ground survey or satellite imagery.
Some of the things they have been used for include surveying orang-utan nests in South East Asia, working with the AREAS Programme of WWF International to combat illegal poaching and widespread surveys of deforestation. Each has unique challenges that are solved through the use of drones, be it cost, speed, or convenience. Given that the drones can also work unmanned, they require less labor, yet still achieve impressive results.
Companies are also seeing the benefit of drone use too. Most people will now have heard about Amazon’s work in the area to deliver smaller parcels within 30 minutes, but it goes further, and potentially more impressive than that.
Google, for instance, trialled drones to provide 5G wifi in New Mexico in 2016 for what they called ‘Project Skybender’, although the company eventually pulled the plans in January 2017. They had some moderate success, but the project was always seen as something of the moonshot.
However, SkyX, an Ontario based UAV provider, have created autonomous drones to help with the maintenance of vast oil pipelines and oilfields. This could potentially save thousands of labor hours, reduce spend on the maintenance costs significantly, and improve productivity. At present the only real way to undertake this kind of maintenance is through the use of land based vehicles and helicopters, which are both expensive and labor intensive. SkyX’s drones removes the need for this expense and can be in the air indefinitely, charging themselves mid-air, meaning that they can monitor a pipeline 24/7.
Monitoring pipelines is a $37 billion industry, with the bulk of that expense going not on the maintenance itself but on the monitoring of the 10,000,000 miles of pipelines that run across the world. Through reducing the costs associated with this and the labor forced required for monitoring, it allows the workforce to potentially be re-deployed on pre-emptive maintenance of these pipelines, meaning increased safety on all pipelines.
There are also numerous examples of drones being used in disaster zones to try and save lives, with examples including the Haiti earthquake in 2012, flooding in the Balkans, earthquakes in China and in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan. Given that infrastructure in these areas is often destroyed and especially in poorer nations, there are few helicopters and aircraft to survey every village, they offer significant opportunities for relief workers to map areas and concentrate their work on areas that need it the most.
In addition to simply seeing where people can have the biggest impact in disaster zones, drones also offer the opportunity to get food, water, and medic supplies to cut off areas. It is often difficult to get supplies to smaller, isolated areas because traditional disaster relief techniques would need to concentrate on areas with the largest population, rather than those in low population remote areas. Through the use of easily portable drones, these small populations can be helped until the more traditional and larger relief efforts can get there.
Drones have a considerable amount to offer to the world and they are already going some way to be seen as something beyond a toy.