Sky is not the limit for drones in industry
During the global pandemic, many organisations were unable to trade conventionally and the urgency of survival hastened innovation and the deployment of emerging technology at an extraordinary pace.
One sector where this accelerated innovation has been most obvious is healthcare. The pressing need to deliver and receive medical supplies while travel was banned meant drones suddenly presented an unlikely but viable solution to an urgent operational issue, with the potential to save many lives.
At the same time, the potential to harness drone technology for picking, packing and parcel delivery operations, in both commercial and residential settings, gained momentum with Amazon and eBay driving the market.
Businesses in many sectors are now realising that drone technology can deliver considerable benefits – including cost savings and operational efficiencies, health and safety, data and analysis, and are considering how to leverage drone technology in reimagining and rebuilding their post-pandemic operations.
The UK is a world-leader in offshore wind energy and, believe it or not, has the largest offshore wind farm in the world off the coast of Yorkshire. Across the whole energy sector, where a significant proportion of operations are undertaken offshore, drones can be used for remote monitoring and surveillance of infrastructure, equipment, transport and other assets. This means that fewer workers are required to be physically present on platforms, reducing the risk of accidents and the expense of preventing them.
Recent technological developments have succeeded in extending battery life, enabling drones to fly further and for longer; eliminating one of the potential barriers to long range deployment. Additionally, significant advances in artificial intelligence systems, sensors, cameras and thermal imagers, mean that operators are able to carry out close-range inspections, assess and repair wind turbine blade damage and forecast maintenance requirements at lower cost and risk to life.
In another area of the energy sector, drones fitted with cameras and sensors are being used to inspect, collect more accurate data and identify potential heat losses from solar PV plants using infrared cameras.
Construction is another industry where drones in industry technology is fast being deployed for economic, social and environmental benefits. In social housing alone, £6.3 billion is spent annually across the UK on repairs and maintenance. A project undertaken by Connected Places Catapult and Yorkshire Housing, confirmed that drones allow assets to be inspected quicker and more cheaply, enabling preventive maintenance that saves 12-18% compared to reactive maintenance. Other benefits include: improved accessibility; avoidance of injuries and deaths from working at heights; and reduced disruption to residents and the public.
In terms of environmental benefits, thermal data captured by drones can be used identify energy wastage through roofs, external walls, windows and defective insulations, and the use of drones in place of heavy plant construction can considerably reduce carbon emissions.
Agriculture is a sector where drones in industry technology could be set to deliver significant benefits at a time when the challenge of feeding the planet, while reducing global emissions, is putting pressure on farmers and agronomists to improve sustainability, resource management and product traceability.
Precision agriculture practices, which can help farmers make better-informed decisions, are evolving fast but the adoption of drones in agriculture has been surprisingly slow. Anecdotally, this may be due to technology hesitancy in farming. For the team at Drones Pathfinder Catalyst, it is important that we are able to address any misinformation or myths by demonstrating the significant benefits to be gained through use cases from other sectors.
The fact is that, with drone technology, produce can be accurately traced from farm to fork using GPS locations in place of traditional time and resource-intensive data collection methods.
Possibly even more exciting, high-resolution drone data can be used to count plants at speed and assess the fertility of crops, allowing agronomists to more accurately apply fertilizer, reduce wastage and plan irrigation. Artificial intelligence can also be used to analyse crops to provide an estimation of future yield enabling optimisation of the supply chain.
The use of drones in large infrastructure and transportation projects is an area where the UK industry is excelling, and there are many innovative case studies for other sectors to learn from. Network Rail, for example, uses authorised pilots and specialist approved contractors with drones to monitor more than 20,000 miles of tracks and 30,000 bridges, tunnels and viaducts. Using drones allows the company to reach areas that are usually difficult to access, including coastal areas and overhead wires. The data and images collected are used to predict and prevent faults before they affect the trains. Drones can also deliver valuable reconnaissance of large indoor and outdoor sites, monitoring perimeters and access routes and capturing real-time imagery to help with site security.
In the unfortunate event of industrial accidents or natural disasters, drones can provide critical oversight. For example, in Australia, they are used extensively for predicting and mapping bush fires. In other emergency response situations, with the help of thermal imaging cameras, responders can locate victims in hard-to-reach places and make life saving rescue attempts faster and at less risk.
With so many existing and hugely successful applications of drone technology across multiple industries, it is only a matter of time before we see drones deployed in many other aspects of everyday business and life.
The Drone Pathfinder Catalyst programme can help organisations keen to take advantage of the opportunities presented by drones. We have developed a drone readiness assessment framework to help organisations understand the key considerations when initially thinking about drone technology. We can advise on how best to use drones within an organisation, help shape the business case and explain the regulatory and compliance requirements for operating drones.
These are just a few examples of how drones have been successfully adopted by industry using technology that is available today and within the existing regulatory framework. Organisations that adopt drone technology now will be well positioned to further benefit from developments in technology and regulation that enable drones to fly beyond visual line of sight of the pilot (BVLOS). With these advances, the sky will definitely not be the limit for drone applications!
Chris Gee is Future Aviation Technologist at the Connected Places Catapult, is an industry leader in Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles and one of the leads for the Drone Pathfinder Catalyst Programme.
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