Amazon’s drones might be grabbing the headlines, but right now aerial delivery of orders to your back garden is something of a flight of fancy – at least until legal restrictions are removed.
In the future carrying small cargo loads may well be big business for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). But right now there is already a worldwide market for flying robots valued at more than $127bn.
The figure comes from global consultancy PwC, which has set up a dedicated Drone Powered Solutions (DPS) unit in UAV-friendly Poland to study how the technology can – and is – being used.
“That figure comes from the value of work that can be replaced with drone-based labour,” says Adam Wisniewski, director of DPS. “It does not include the value of drones themselves.”
Amazon’s experimental drone delivery service is a flight of fancy until regulation is sorted out
The biggest opportunity for drones is in infrastructure – a market the PwC team values at $45bn. As the craft are fitted with sensors that can see far more than the human eye, they threaten to do away traditional ground-based surveyors who lay the groundwork for building projects and then monitor their progress.
“With a drone you get an unparalleled level of very practical data,” says Michal Mazur, partner at DPS. “A human surveyor is slow by comparison; they might be tired, they might be struggling in the rain, and a lot of what they produce is interpretative. Drones give an indisputable source of digital data, and one which is accurate to centimetres, rather than much larger ‘deviations’ humans give.”
A global boom in infrastructure spending means that companies are looking to speed up surveying as well as improve it, creating a demand for systems such as drones.
UAVs can also be used to monitor actual construction work. “Say you’re building a motorway, which takes years, and you want to know how work is going. It takes ages to survey it by traditional means and is expensive,” says Mazur. “Now imagine being able to fly a drone over it 40 times a week. You can see exactly how you are progressing, with very regular updates.”
DPS says it has seen instances of an eye in the sky improving safety in the construction industry. Mazur cites one example when a drone doing a survey spotted a welder not wearing protective gear and smoking next to a gas pipeline. “And the trench he was in was too deep and the sides too steep,” he adds.
“On one building project we saw accidents cut by 91%,” says Wisniewski. “The drones were capturing people not wearing hard hats and other safety gear. Just the knowledge that one might be flying over and watching meant people started behaving.”
It is not just in construction that drones have found a niche. Aim-listed Strat Aero offers drone surveying and data analysis.
The company has landed international contracts checking wind turbines and surveying buildings.
“We recently surveyed the roof of an Essex car factory the size of 12 football pitches for damage that might need repair,” says Iain McClure, chief executive. “In the past that would have taken a team of three guys several days. We did it in five hours.”
He also sees safety benefits from drones. “You’re no longer sending guys off ropes at height. That’s a dangerous job that needs highly skilled, expensive people to do it.”
UAVs are also allowing work that has been difficult or even impossible before. Strat Aero’s largest job is surveying Thames flood defences. “We no longer have to send surveyors out into areas such as estuaries that were inaccessible and dangerous before, and we can give accurate data that’s not been possible to get until now,” says Mr McClure.
Both DPS and Strat Aero can see many surveyors needing to add a drone pilot’s licence to their CVs if they want to stay in the industry. However, McClure believes traditional skills will still be needed.
“It’s fine to send a drone up and send back a million digital pictures, but so what?” he says. “Clients need to know what they mean and a bloke hanging off a rope will know how to interpret what he sees. Understanding and being able to analyse what a drone records is where the value is and we’ve got people beating our door down because we can tell them what it means.”
The second biggest market for UAVs is agriculture, with PWC’s experts valuing the sector at $32.4bn. Drones can give information to farmers about the state of their crops so they know when to harvest them or if they need treatments. In Japan work has even been done to use UAVs to spray crops, but their small payloads limit this application.
An equally novel application is using drones in construction work. “They are just a platform and you can attach things to them, so why not?” says Wisniewski. “They could do small repairs on power lines, or telecoms towers and antennas where there’s not only the risk to humans of working at height but the danger of a shock or powerful electromagnetic radiation.”
Insurance could also be a big market for drones. UAVs can assess large-scale damage quickly, but the real benefit could be in before and after comparisons, allowing insurers to assess the true extent of a flood or fire.
“The aim is to get insurance companies to build a database of what they insure,” says McClure. “That way afterwards they can compare the data, and can even click down to the single brick level.”
Other uses include stock checking, particularly of large items, with one example being rail wagons in goods yards. The speed of drones mean that such bulky items can be monitored much faster than by a human on foot.
Security is another area where an eye in the sky can deliver benefits; DPS says that when drones were used to monitor a Polish rail goods yards for stock checking it had the added benefit of slashing thefts by 60%.
However, there are obstacles in the way of drones. In the UK operators are limited by aviation regulator, the CAA, to “line of sight” flight, with similar controls in many other nations. In practice this means that drones cannot fly more than 1500ft from the pilot or at an altitude above 400ft, and operations in built-up areas require special permission.
The authority also limits their weight, reducing endurance and the payloads they can carry.
Privacy is also a concern, and then there is a general fear of unmanned vehicles. “It’s the Terminator effect,” says Wisniewski, who adds he’s a fan of the 1980s and 1990s films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. “There’s a psychological problem about machines not being controlled by a human. People want to know that there’s a human involved – even though autonomous flight is going to be safer and have faster reaction times than a human.”
Technology is also holding drones back, with a maximum battery life of just 30 minutes, though this is expected to improve as batteries become more advanced.
These are hurdles are likely to be overcome as the pay-off is so large, according to Mazur.
“This is a data business with drones a tool for that,” he says. “And there is always a hunger for good quality data.”