If you blink, you might miss something! The examples here represent only a fraction of this booming field, but they show how diverse drone use has become. Interspersed among them, this article offers further insights on technology integration, the regulatory outlook and the economic future of this fast-moving industry.
By Tony Murfin, Contributing Editor, UAV & Professional OEM
Capturing where the drone industry has been this year and where it is headed in 2019 resembles trying to describe a Florida thunderstorm: how can there be so much rain so quickly, how long will it last, and what will the landscape look like afterwards? (Iâ€™m writing this during just such a deluge near Venice on the Gulf Coast.)
The UAV/UAS industry has grown at such an amazing rate, itâ€™s almost impossible to count or describe all the applications that have become normal practice, not to mention the number of companies involved in either making drone platforms or supplying drone integrators with sensors: GNSS, inertial, lidar, cameras photographic, thermal, infrared, video and more.
From accident reporting to crop monitoring to infrastructure inspections, drones are, so to speak, on the rise. This year we have seen substantial increases in investments by equipment suppliers, continuing funding for military businesses, prototype systems for remotely identifying and even taking down drones, and vastly expanded use in mapping and survey.
As precision guidance, autonomous operations, high-definition geocoded images and high-volume data processing all improve, drone usage will continue to increase. OEM receiver manufacturers, sensor suppliers and data-handling companies play key roles in development, and stand to profit thereby.
In particular, use of drones is growing in land management, construction, mining and farming. An open-pit mine operation can be supported through detailed drone inspection producing high-resolution images. Processed images and data enable keeping tabs on inventory, site changes over time, identifying best areas for further extraction, and monitoring and managing vehicle movement. These tasks required huge amounts of time in the past. Drone overflight and processing tools condense all the effort as well as producing enhanced results to enable faster and clearer decision-making.
Surveillance and reconnaissance are probably the biggest military drone applications. Carrying payloads that include color video cameras and infrared night vision cameras, more than 19,000 drones are now in the arsenal of the U.S. Army, Air Force, Marines and Special Ops, and more have gone to other nationsâ€™ militaries. Some fly at relatively low altitude, with limited range and powered by a single quiet electric motor; these drones have become essential in gathering forward-situation intelligence.
The following examples represent only a small part of the industry. I selected them here to show how diverse drone use has become. Interspersed among them, Iâ€™ll offer further observations on technology integration, the regulatory outlook and the economic future of this fast-moving industry. If you blink, you might miss something!
In the past, when police arrived at a serious traffic accident, investigators had to use tape measures and roller wheels to construct an accurate physical record of the incident. More recently, police have used laser measuring tools but this still entails time-consuming procedures and produces traffic back-ups. Now police departments have started to collect highly accurate aerial images of traffic incidents using drones, and itâ€™s proving quicker and more efficient.
UAVs collect photos and videos, and software then stitches multiple high-resolution images together into a 2D or 3D map. With geolocation annotation provided by the drone, investigators can then take measurements directly from visual accident records.
Previously, an investigation could take up to three hours gathering information manually, but with a drone overflying and documenting an accident this might be reduced to around 45 minutes. This clearly saves time and money for the police as well as drivers who suffer shorter traffic delays. With an investment of about $15,000 in drone hardware and training, payback can happen pretty quickly.
The drone logistics and transportation market was estimated to be valued at US $11.20 billion in 2022 and is projected to reach $29.06 billion by 2027, at a combined annual growth rate (CAGR) of 21.01%, according to India-based MarketsAndMarkets Research, in its May 2018 report.
The logistics and transportation market was defined to include warehousing, shipping, infrastructure, software, military, freight, and even passenger and ambulance drones. â€śThe increasing use of unmanned aerial vehicles in civil and commercial applications for faster delivery of goods is one of the most significant factors expected to drive the growth of the drone logistics market,â€ť stated the report.
The shipping segment is indeed projected to grow at the highest CAGR, as drones will see increasing use to transport a range of products from small packages to medical supplies and food. Venture capitalist investment in this market has been substantial as well as significant commitments by companies such as Amazon, Google, and Walmart in research and development to commercialize drone delivery services.
Couple that with another report from the same company report on the drone analytics market, valued at $1.17 billion in 2016 and projected to reach $5.41 billion by 2022, at a CAGR of 28.11% from 2017 to 2022. The drone analytics market was considered to encompass agriculture and forestry, construction, insurance, mining, utilities, telecommunications, oil and gas, and scientific research.
Both reports note that â€śThe imposition of restrictions by various government agencies on the use of UAVs in civil and commercial applications is one of the major challenges faced by the drone logistics and transportation market.â€ť
In February of this year, MarketsandMarkets estimated that the overall UAV market was valued at $18.14 billion in 2017 and projected to reach $52.3 billion by 2025, at a CAGR of 14.15%.
Results of a survey of 269 farmers by Munich Reinsurance America indicate that three quarters of all farmers in the U.S.â€” from those with less than 100 acres to those with more than 5,000 â€” have either begun to use drones for precision agriculture, and monitoring crops, livestock and soil conditions, or are thinking about using drones. Roughly half of these farmers contract out the work to drone service suppliers and most use drones either daily or more than once a week.
As the size, weight and power (SWAP) and the accuracy of sensors continue to improve, drone use will continue increasing steadily. OEM receiver manufacturers, sensor suppliers and data-handling companies play key roles in this vital and ongoing development, and stand to profit thereby.
Making it all work is a combination of sensor payloads gathering inertial and GNSS location, stills and video, lidar, thermal and hyperspectral data; the secret sauce lies in how the data is processed and presented to users. All these areas show significant growth. The following are only a few key examples.
Lidar. Light detection and ranging (lidar) detects and measure the distance of an object or surface from an optical source, in this case a hovering or cruising UAV. GPS and inertial provide geoâ€“referencing per each scan point.
Lidar has seen increasing application in surveying and engineering, GIS mapping, accident scene reconstruction, topographic and coastline mapping, digital elevation model and digital surface model generation, mining and quarries, gas and oil pipelines, railroads and other infrastructure. As hardware costs decline, software begins to play more and more of a major role, becoming a larger part of the solution in every way.
The M200 Snoopy series lidar package from LidarUSA is designed specifically for integration aboard the DJI M200 UAV. The laser scanning has a 100-meter maximum range, yielding 4-5 cm accuracy. It carries a tactical grade L1/L2 GPS/IMU unit and weighs 1.63 kg.
Inertial Miniaturization. UAVs are driving even further size-downs of other navigation sensors as well.
As just one example, the miniature ÎĽIMU from Inertial Sense incorporates a magnetometer, barometric pressure sensor, and L1 GPS (GNSS) receiver. Angular rate, linear acceleration, magnetic field, barometric altitude, and GPS location outputs are at 1 KHz with UTC time synchronization.
ADS-B. Aerobits in Poland has developed a high-speed, miniaturized (23.0 x 18.0 x 2.5mm & weighing 2 grams) Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) module which provides detect-and-avoid for small UAVs. The module accepts external GNSS position inputs and has high speed on-chip processing which enables processing of thousands of ADS-B signals/second from other aircraft/drones. Aerobits claims a reception range of over 200 miles due to a high-sensitivity RF front-end. With FAA-mandated equipage coming for aircraft in 2020, this potentially offers a detect-and-avoid option for even small drones.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International has been an industry voice for more than 40 years. AUVSI president Brian Wynne recently told Congress what needs to be done to fully integrate UAS into the National Airspace System â€” a critical step in further drone development and growth.
Initial regulations governing civil and commercial UAS operations are now in place. The FAAâ€™s small UAS rule, known as Part 107, established a flexible, risk-based approach to regulating UAS and reduced many barriers to low-risk civil and commercial UAS operations. Since its enactment in 2016, however, demand for commercial UAS has exploded.
â€śAs of March 2018,â€ť Wynne stated, â€śmore than 150,000 platforms have been registered for commercial use. The FAA expects more than 450,000 UAS to be flying for commercial purposes over the next five years.â€ť Thatâ€™s three times as many as today!
Waivers to Part 107 permit their holders to operate at night, as well as in certain restricted airspaces, beyond line of sight and over people. More than 1,700 operators across the U.S. have received these waivers.
Continued adoption of unmanned flight will require an expanded regulatory framework that extends the waiver provisions much more widely. There are many challenges to this, particularly security concerns. A key step will be â€śimplementing a remote ID system that identifies any UAS flying in the airspace, in real time.â€ť according to Wynne.
The FAA reauthorization bill recently passed by the House of Representatives calls for rulemaking concerning carriage of property, a necessary step for allowing UAS package deliveries â€” the next big thing.
Military business remains a major source of revenue for the UAV/UAS industry, as demonstrated by the recent award of several contracts to various drone suppliers.
U.S. Naval Air Systems Command recently awarded Insitu a ~$54 million fixed-price contract for four production RQ-21A Blackjack unmanned aircraft systems and eight attrition air vehicles: seven for the Marine Corps and one for the government of Poland.Â The contract includes ground control stations, launch and recovery equipment, shipboard equipment kits as well as systems engineering and program management support.
U.S. Army Contracting Command recently awarded General Atomics Aeronautical System Inc. (GA-ASI) a Grey Eagle engineering support contract worth ~$11m. Work will be undertaken at the GA-ASI facilities in Poway, CA and will run through to Sept 30, 2019.
GA-ASI has also just won an FMS (Foreign Military Sales) contract worth $123 million for MQ-9 Reaper systems for France â€“ deliveries are expected to be completed by May 2020. An FMS contract is normally how a foreign government procures U.S. government military equipment. The foreign government contracts with a U.S. agency, and the U.S. agency awards a back-to-back contract to the U.S. supplier. In this case, the U.S. contracting authority is the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
The U.S. Missile Defense Agency has awarded General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems (GA-EMS), San Diego, California, a contract worth up to ~$134 million to develop, integrate, and flight test an advanced sensor into the MQ-9 UAV. The work will be performed in San Diego, California from August 2018 through October 2021 with realistic flight testing scenarios taking place both within the U.S. and elsewhere.
At the end of August, Boeing won the contest for the U.S. Navyâ€™s unmanned refueling tanker with an $805 million contract award. The award covers the development and manufacturing of an initial four air vehicles. The future MQ-25 Stingray will be the first UAV to operate from U.S. aircraft carriers to refuel and extend the range of several combat aircraft.
L3 Technologies has wonÂ a U.S. Army $454M contract to build, deliver and support an electro-optical infrared laser designator for theÂ RQ-7Bv2Â tactical UAS. The drone mounted payload will help the Army manage battlespace situational awareness, increase UAS survivability and obtain imagery for target/threat detection.
DroneShield out of Australia markets a drone detection and mitigation system, known for its DroneGun, a point-and-shoot device able to disrupt multiple RF frequency bands simultaneously (433MHz, 915MHz, 2.4GHz & 5.8GHz), taking out the communication link to a drone operator â€” and also GNSS signals when so equipped â€” up to 1km away.
The full DroneSentry detection system integrates a suite of sensors and countermeasures including radar, optical, RF listening, acoustic, thermal and an RF countermeasure transmitter with greater power/range than the portable DroneGun.
SenseFly recently completed work on a three-year construction project in Northern Ireland to build the new A6 highway. A senseFly eBee Plus drone provided detailed aerial coverage and minimize interruptions with road traffic and ongoing quarry operations.
Adopting an integrated aerial approach enabled the construction contractor to quickly obtain detailed, accurate, professional-grade data, and has helped save time and resources. Reducing the time required in the field and proximity to dangerous quarry sites optimized the mapping task
High-Precision Survey Drone. The TRIUMPH-F1 UAV is built around the JAVAD GNSS TRIUMPH-1M receiver, the companyâ€™s high-precision geodetic GNSS receiver with 864 channels to track all current and future GNSS signals.
When used on the ground, the TRIUMPH-F1 can function as a TRIUMPH-1M base or rover. The four motor arms (for eight motors) are detachable. Four screw inserts in the bottom to attach the TRIUMPH-F1 to a pole mount for field use.
The TRIUMPH-F1 features user-friendly mission programming. The four lithium polymer batteries that power the eight propeller motors, arranged in a stacked quad formation.
The TRIUMPH-F1 also has two micro-SD slots for image storage, a SIM card slot, a USB connector for uploading flight plans and downloading collected images, and indicators for satellite tracking and communications. Other indicators are dedicated to flight status and gyro.
Vertical Landing. WingtraOneâ€™s vertical landing technology enables touchdown in confined areas as small as 2 m x 2 m like boats or forest lanes. Combined with a flight range of up to 50 km, this makes large-coverage mapping missions feasible
The vertical-take-off-and landing (VTOL) drone WingtraOne is designed to safeguard its valuable sensors and eliminate wear and tear of the equipment. Instead of broken wings or damaged cameras from belly landings and parachute touchdowns, the WingtraOne lands gently. During the vertical descent, laser sensor data enables the WingtraOne to sense the ground and land safely even on rocky or hilly hilly terrain.
In case of a changing landing environment like a drifting boat or recently parked cars, the landing spot can be adjusted easily.
The WingtraOne works truly autonomously during its entire mission, including take-off and landing. Instead of catapult or hand launches that can cause injuries or damage equipment, the WingtraOne takes off vertically without any human interaction.
Matternet, based in Switzerland, is testing deliveries using drones under a 3-year program run by the North Carolina Department of Transportation. The NC program is one of 10 authorized by the FAA to evaluate the commercial use of drones.
The objective is to transport small items like blood samples, but initially vials of water will take the ride from a medical office building before landing on a hospital roof. In March, the company was authorized to operate drones over populated areas in Switzerland, carrying samples to hospitals in Lugano.
Items can be securely deposited into the drone station for pick up or retrieved following delivery. A smartphone application is used to authorize pick up and delivery. The item is then scanned for pick up, the station automatically installs the item into the drone for transport, the drone then departs for the assigned destination and on arrival, scanning is required to retrieve the delivered item at the other end.
These examples just skim the surface of an exploding industry which just keeps on keeping on, constantly developing new solutions and applications. High-altitude pseudo satellite drones, drone delivery of goods within minutes of placing an internet order, automated drone facility inspections, power via wireless to keep drones airborne, parachute safety systems for dronesâ€¦.the list goes on and on.
Clearly the UAV/UAS industry has only begun its journey. There are many unexpected places we can look forward to it visiting in coming months and years.