Technology & Innovation

Commercial Drones: Is It Time to Believe the Hype?

Commercial Drones: Is It Time to Believe the Hype?

The growing use of drones across industries is impressive. According to figures cited by Newsweek, investment in drone start-ups has reached $1 billion with predictions that 600,000 commercial drones will be in use within the United States alone in 2017; creating 100,000 new jobs. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) puts the addressable market for drone technology at $127 billion globally but where are the investments being made?

Just-In-Time Delivery

Following the exponential growth in e-commerce, companies like Amazon, Alibaba, UPS, DHL and even Google are investigating the use of drones to automate delivery and reduce delivery times. While this has received a great deal of press attention, it’s still in its infancy with only a few test flights conducted to date and many technical and regulatory barriers still to cross.

Cinema and Television

Increasingly drones are being used to shoot footage for movies and television. The results are quite stunning. Think Game of Thrones and the last two James Bond films.

Agriculture

Of the $127 billion in investment, $32 billion has been channelled into agriculture alone. Drones are being employed for a range of uses including monitoring and spraying crops, analysing fields and soil, irrigation and even planting. Some of the most interesting use cases come from the “mash-up” of drones with other technologies such as thermal imaging, mapping and LiDAR (light detection and ranging) to help farmers increase their yields, use less chemicals and get more out of resources such as water and fertilizer.

Emergency Response

Mash-ups also make this space really interesting. In emergency situations, where time is the most critical factor, coupling artificial intelligence with drones could help first responders assess the extent of damage by quickly comparing drone footage to previous imagery of the site while also using thermal imagery and sensors connected to drones to identify potential survivors and chemical or gas leaks. Researchers in the UK are assessing whether 3D printers mounted on drones could create basic shelter for survivors and there’s clear use for drones to transport medical and food supplies to areas which would otherwise be unreachable.

What to Consider

Clearly there’s potential to explore multiple uses for drones for commercial real estate but, while growing rapidly, it’s still a technology that’s in its infancy. There’s some hurdles to cross and issues to watch out for if you’re considering putting drones to work.

Regulations and Safety

As commercial drone usage is gaining pace regulations are playing catch up. The rules may ease up as geo-fencing and collision avoidance technologies make drones safer but for now they err on the side of caution.

Drone regulation is usually set at the state or country level so it’s imperative that you are aware of local rules. Generally speaking these will cover areas such as:

  • How close you can fly to airports and restricted air space
  • Flying over other high-risk areas such as crowds, power lines or roads​
  • Flying at night or in adverse weather conditions​
  • Whether you need to maintain direct line of sight to the drone when it is in flight​
  • The distance you must keep away from buildings or people ​
  • The maximum height you can fly a drone

Qualified Pilots

Depending on the regulations in your country it’s likely that you will need a qualified pilot to use drones for commercial purposes above a certain size or specification of drone​. In some countries pilots must be a certain age, for example 16 or above in the United States, and may need to log their flight route with their local aviation authority prior to take off.

Battery Life

This sounds basic but it’s important given commercial-grade drones, and the equipment attached to them, can be costly. Currently the battery life of the average drone is not great. To put it into perspective, online sources estimate that the battery life of the Amazon Prime octocopters would be around 30 minutes before they are weighed down by cargo. Colder climates compound this problem with colder temperatures reducing battery life further, or even causing them to fail completely, as well as affecting the performance of sensors used to control the drone.​

Insurance

Insurance companies have started providing specific policies for drone usage and it’s a good idea to have cover should something go wrong. This is true both for the commercial user or the hobbyist.

Privacy

Regardless of whether you plan to put drones to use or not we should all be aware of the privacy implications of this technology for both individuals and corporations. Last year a private drone pilot did a flyover of Facebook’s new Fort Worth data centre and posted the video footage online. According to the pilot Facebook were quick to jump on the situation and it raises some interesting questions around how secure our facilities really are. While regulations usually prevent drones from flying too close to buildings drones can film anything that’s visible from outside a building … and in high definition. It’s never been more important to keep identifying information, such as IP addresses, hidden, screens locked and documents filed away.

Let’s all be vigilant and prepared for both the opportunities and risks that drones pose.

 

The above is written by Cushman & Wakefield’s Sheridan Ware, Chief Information Officer (Asia Pacific and Greater China).

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