It’s a sword to ploughshare story. Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are undergoing a dramatic makeover to turn into a business tool. These automatically programmed aircrafts, fitted with miniature cameras and sensors, are finding new uses: detecting oil and gas pipeline leaks, shipping goods, scanning disaster-hit areas, spraying pesticides in fields, and making movies.
Big profits projected
A whole new Industrial Internet application is in the making. “The technology is ready for wide commercial adoption and the industry is only waiting for the regulators' nod in the US,” confirms Chris Mailey, vice-president of knowledge resources, Association for Unmanned Vehicle System International (AUVSI). Several projects could go live next year, after the US approves laws for UAV’s commercial use. An AUVSI study projects an economic impact of over $13.6 billion in first three years of their integration into U.S. skies, and then reaching more than $82.1 billion by 2025.
The possibilities are endless, especially with price tags as low as tens of thousands of dollars, thanks to the falling cost of components like gyroscopes, accelerometers, GPS chips, and CPUs. “Professional grade UAVs have already reached price points where they can easily take-off in non-military space,” says Falcon UAV CEO Chris Miser. His company provided volunteer aerial services to capture imagery for damage assessment during the Colorado floods last year and also demonstrated how unmanned aircrafts can track endangered wildlife in South Africa.
Several companies are already exploring avenues to use UAVs in the U.S. Amazon made waves with its idea of 30-minute package delivery with a drone network, and Rolls Royce is developing uncaptained freight vessels.
Chris Mailey of UAVSI expects precision agriculture to be the biggest market. The unmanned aircrafts, fitted with infrared light cameras, can watch growth of a specific field section and reveal plant health by reflecting how efficient photosynthesis is in various plants. These can also identify exactly where resources such as pesticides, water, or fertilizers are needed and deliver them precisely there. In Japan, he points out, Yamaha has been doing this for years because a big part of the farmland is hilly or is near residential areas.
Oil and gas companies can rely on drones to detect pipeline faults at a fraction of the cost of a piloted helicopter flights. BP Plc, for instance, conducted a 20-minute unmanned flight last year to inspect a stretch of oil pipeline in Alaska.
Removing human risks
UAVs can easily charge into an area hit with a natural disaster without risking human life and limb. For instance, NASA, NOAA, and Northrop Grumman teamed up on a three-year, $30-million experiment to use long-range UAV to spy on storms as they evolve. The French Fly-n-Sense company has developed a forest surveillance system to enable a real-time monitoring of fire outbreaks and development of flames in French forests.
As more and more applications emerge, one thing is clear. At least in the U.S., the evolution of drones has outpaced government regulations and sparked debate over what controls are appropriate. Congress has given the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) until September 2015 to write an initial set of rules on how to safely allow unmanned, commercial aircraft into U.S. airspace.
Meanwhile several organizations have received special approvals to fly drones. FAA has selected six research sites to host tests and map out the best way to safely bring UAVs into U.S. airspace. The six sites are the University of Alaska, the state of Nevada, Griffiss International Airport in Rome, New York, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, Texas A&M University, and Virginia Tech. Virginia Tech's research will also include collaboration with Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.
VC leans in
Several businesses and investors are smelling opportunity and are scrambling to get a piece of the action. Venture investors have poured $79 million into drone-related startups across 15 deals, according to CB Insights. Gartner’s hype cycle seems to suggest a growth phase, too. According to Chris Anderson, CEO of 3D Robotics, drones, which are a combination of autonomous vehicles and mobile robots, are 5-10 years to the “plateau of productivity,” but with the higher “inflated expectations” still to come (followed by the inevitable "trough of disillusionment”).