The growing availability of affordable drones in the sub-USD 1 000 consumer marketplace is raising awareness of their potential commercial as well as leisure applications, gradually replacing the public perception of drones as tools to track and kill targets in military operations abroad. The term ‘drone’ refers to aircraft without a human pilot aboard which can be operated autonomously through on-board computers or by remote control; they are also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unpiloted air systems (UAS). Drones can be powered by an internal combustion engine, batteries, solar photovoltaic (PV) systems or a combination of these.
From agriculture, to aerial photography
Agriculture, disaster relief, conservation, wildlife monitoring and aerial photography are the areas where the use of commercial drones is currently showing the fastest growth.
Agricultural researchers are experimenting with the use of drones to monitor the growth of crops. The use of aerial video in the energy sector, especially oil and gas, is another key application. Compared with satellite imagery, drone mapping can produce data faster, at a higher resolution and a far cheaper price.
Other emerging applications include scanning disaster sites and nuclear plants for signs of radiation, surveying infrastructure such as power pylons and telecoms facilities and carrying out building surveys.
Aid organizations like Medecins Sans Frontieres have tested the ability of drones to carry samples and deliver emergency medical supplies in isolated areas. The World Wildlife Fund and other conservationists are using cheap drones with cameras, flown by auto-pilot linked to GPS, to count endangered animal populations, from orang-utans in Sumatra to rhinos in South Africa. And police forces and fire services are using drones for search and rescue as well as surveillance.
In February 2015 China’s biggest internet retailer, Alibaba, ran a three-day trial of drone based deliveries to hundreds of customers near distribution centres in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. While global heavyweights like Amazon, Google and UPS pursue their own private trials using drones to deliver packages automatically once regulatory issues are resolved, drone delivery services have been successfully carried out in Germany and France (the latter on a test basis).
Huge potential market
The commercial drone market has benefited from the huge investments in military drones. Advances in high density batteries and GPS systems have made it possible for drones to travel longer distances autonomously, while costs have fallen. By the end of 2015, according to accounting and consulting firm Deloitte, up to one million non-military drones costing upwards of USD 200 could be in use globally, raising questions about safety, regulation and technical standards.
Commercial drones range in price from small, semi-autonomous rotorcraft priced at around USD 1 000 up to large, fully-autonomous, fixed wing type aircraft costing more than USD 1 million. While their capabilities and uses vary as widely as their prices, they all have a common function: to gather information and data from the air using on-board cameras or other sensors.
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Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com