Game of Drones

Drones have evolved beyond their military origins to become powerful business tools. We look at how they have made the jump to the consumer market and which sectors of the economy are set to benefit

Illustration of a hand holding a drone

Illustration by Noma Bar

In June this year, the ever-inventive Amazon revealed its latest patent – for a new kind of fulfilment centre shaped like a giant beehive, imagined as a launch pad for the company's Prime Air delivery service. Thousands of autonomous drones will buzz in and out of little doors delivering fitness DVDs and travel plug adapters to customers' homes.

This lofty idea started somewhere more humble. The retailer made the first UK commercial drone delivery in December 2016: a single 13-minute flight to drop off a TV streaming stick and a bag of popcorn to the garden of a customer near Cambridge.

It's worth noting that deliveries are only a tiny part of the drone story. Goldman Sachs forecasts a $100 billion market opportunity for the drone industry between now and 2020, with business and civil governments expected to spend $13 billion on filling our skies with the craft in that time1.

According to Chris Anderson, founder of US drone company 3D Robotics, when the world is increasingly obsessed with the digital mapping of reality, the drones are no longer the point. "The real product is the data they can collect," he has said. "Rather than seeing airplanes without pilots, we saw smartphones with propellers.2"

Indeed, drones would appear to be spearheading the latest step in the data revolution. Just 18 months ago TV and film work accounted for 75% of UK commercial drone activity according to ARPAS, the industry trade association3. Now applications more integral to business success have taken over.

Crops and construction

"Precision agriculture is a real growing area," says Iain Gray, director of aerospace at Cranfield University and chair of the Drone Industry Action Group. "Drones offer the ability to fly over fields, measure soil depths and moisture density, and tell you which parts of the crop are in need of which particular fertilisers."

Goldman Sachs says the drone opportunity in agriculture is worth $6 billion globally, while there's $11 billion of potential in the construction industry, where flying cameras and sensors are fast becoming as commonplace as the jackhammer4. They're a cost-effective way of gathering accurate, hard-to-get data, which can dramatically reduce inefficiencies and help construction jobs come in on time and on budget.

In the UK there are already close to 2,500 companies offering drone services - inspecting offshore wind turbines, helping with fisheries protection, flood detection and more. "I was quite staggered to find the UK's largest user of drones is Network Rail," says Gray. "They have 20,000 miles of track, power lines, all sorts of architectural features like bridges, and they use drones to inspect it all. They even have their own Flight Ops Department."

“The real product is the data drones collect. Rather than planes without pilots, we saw smartphones with propellers”

Military applications

Defence is set to remain a key driver of innovation. Take SkyWall, a counter-drone system developed by Northumberland-based OpenWorks, which involves firing a net from a handheld launcher to capture rogue drones and land them with a parachute.

There may be no shortage of takers for that. In the past year, the UK Air Proximity Board has reported nearmisses between consumer drones and passenger airliners at Stansted, Heathrow, London City and Manchester. And aerospace analysts at Teal Group have forecast that civilian drones will be the most dynamic growth sector in world aerospace for the next 10 years, with production soaring from $2.8 billion in 2017 to $11.8 billion in 2026.

Anderson has described this consumerisation of drones as "the fastest transfer of technology from CIA to Costco in history"5. UK consumers can now pick up a drone at Argos for £400. China's DJI has cornered the market with aggressive pricing, and many companies are now ditching manufacture to focus on developing software and services to help drone users.

"We're seeing more service-related business models around the provision of secure and robust data," says Gray. "A company could mash together satellite data and drone data to come up with real detailed analysis. Even more traditional organisations like Ordinance Survey or the Met Office, which rely extensively on data, are starting to look at new models for its provision."

Safety and security issues

Regulation remains a major hurdle.The government recently announced plans to introduce registration for drone owners; current Civil Aviation Authority rules stipulate a drone must have an operator on the ground flying it within strict parameters. How else do you stop drones flying near airports and schools, or dropping drugs into prisons?

Reading's Altitude Angel is a good example of small UK firms innovating in air traffic management for drones. Its geofencing technology draws no-go areas, then creates a corrective action if the drone strays into it.

Myriad other surprising uses are emerging. Dubai announced plans to launch air taxis – drones carrying people - this year. Meanwhile scientists at the University of Warsaw have developed tiny AI-powered drones that can pollinate flowers and may help save the endangered bumble bee. Is there anything it can't deliver?

Buzz phrase: DRONE CODE

What's the Drone Code, then, and whose idea was it?
Nothing to do with bees – it’s a set of rules and regulations drawn up by the Civil Aviation Authority.

What do I need to know if I fly drones?
Always keep your drone in sight. Stay below 400ft. Don't get too close to people or property –150ft is close enough, unless there are crowds or you're in a built-up area, then it's 500ft. Oh, and you can't get round the exclusion zones by overflying. Most importantly, stay well away from aircraft, airports and airfields. WELL AWAY.

  1. Reporting for Work, Goldman Sachs, 2017
  2. Drones Go To Work, Harvard Business Review, 16 May 2017
  3. Financial Times, 29 January 2017
  4. Reporting for Work, Goldman Sachs, 2017
  5. Drones Go To Work, Harvard Business Review, 16 May 2017

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