The Future With Drones

futuristic drones flying over the city

First used in military applications as far back as the Second World War, drone technology has now advanced to the point where they are used as toys, as photography and surveillance tools, and yes, as commercially viable appliances.

Far cheaper to purchase and operate than manned aircraft such as gyrocopters, drones can carry a wide variety of sensors and even light cargo. Informed observers expect the drone market to reach as much as $7 billion per annum by 2020. A great deal of this expected sudden increase will be based on regulatory reform, which has not kept pace with technological advances, even lower costs for greater capabilities, and – not to be overlooked – the improvements and wider application of machine learning and data analytics.

Possible Applications

Drones are likely to find a niche in any commercial activity that operates over a wide area. As one example, drones equipped not only with normal optical cameras, but also thermal imagers and chemical detectors sensitive to the emission spectrum of natural gas can patrol petroleum pipelines. The process can be largely automated, is highly reliable and is an order of magnitude faster than the current state of the art.

In the transport industry, rail networks and bridges can be inspected in much the same way, again using computer support and advanced analytics to give planners a clear and complete view of the state of the tracks. Rather than relying exclusively on ladders and eyeballs, some airlines are already using drones to facilitate aircraft inspections.

As far as delivering anything from mail to pizza, several companies claim that their systems are ready to go as soon as automated drones, operating with only limited human control, are declared legal for use. In the world of mining, drones are already used not only to monitor open-cast sites, but help in managing and inspecting vehicles and other equipment in the field. In the not too distant future, “drones” in the form of automatic construction and excavation equipment will become commonplace.

Implications for Business

While the thought of a 30-ton bulldozer without a human hand at the controls may be a little frightening, these changes are almost inevitable, and are going to have an enormous impact on every industry. The likely benefits will include improved safety (both by replacing humans with robots in hazardous environments, and through improved monitoring and inspection), better inventory and facilities management, far better business intelligence as Big Data gains another suite of inputs, and cost savings across the board.

Whatever your industry, it should be borne in mind that incorporating drones into your existing processes is likely to be at least somewhat disruptive. There are as of yet few guidelines based on prior experience, so careful consideration should be given to any initiative where drones can complement or replace existing methods. A number of possible failure points exist, the effects of which have not yet been road-tested: what if the data your drones supply is hacked, and what will happen if the radio control signals are jammed? In addition, a company will not get the full benefit of the data drones can supply unless their IT infrastructure is up to scratch, which should be seen as part of the total required investment.

It’s a brave and frightening new world, indeed. Whether an enterprise survives the coming years will depend not only on purchasing the shiniest toys, but also on how these are incorporated within a rational business model.

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