THE GLOBAL MANUFACTURING & INDUSTRIALISATION SUMMIT

NEWS

Drones: A force for good or an unknown risk?

21 Jun 2018

The use of drones has skyrocketed in recent years. Having initially been used for military purposes, as a safer and cheaper alternative to manned military aircrafts, they are evolving to become powerful business tools. Both the commercial and consumer drone market are experiencing robust growth. From firefighting to farming, the potential uses of drones are endless and they are creating a market opportunity that is too large to ignore.

The statistics speak for themselves. Goldman Sachs forecasts a $100 billion market opportunity for drones between now and 2020, helped by growing demand from the commercial and civil government sectors, and estimates that businesses and governments around the world will spend $13 billion on drones in the same period, putting thousands in the sky. PwC, who set up a UK drones team earlier this year, believes that the market for work carried out by drones could be $127 billion globally by 2020, and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International has said that drones could add more than 100,000 jobs to the US economy by 2025. Drone enthusiasts see a not-too-distant future of automated crop fertilisation, buildings cleaned from the air and supper dropped at your door, and this is a vision on which some companies are betting big.

Businesses in the construction, agriculture, oil and gas and media sectors have been some of the first to realise the potential of drones and the benefits they can bring to their commercial operations, which include greater efficiency at a much lower cost. Drones are already being used by businesses in these industries to monitor crops, survey construction sites, carry out routine oil and gas pipeline inspections, and generate climate data, as well as allow more insightful and real-time media reporting. While adoption is still relatively low, several businesses will make significant investments in drones in the next few years, which have the potential to transform every industry they touch.

“Drones for Good”

In addition to improving businesses’ commercial capabilities, drones have the potential to “do good” for the environment and for society; to help with medical deliveries, aid search and rescue teams, enhance wildlife conservation efforts, combat wildfires and more.

Conservation drones are already being used in parts of Asia and Africa, for example, to survey for certain animal populations and to help with anti-poaching efforts by locating, tracking and catching suspected poachers. Drones are also being trialled in the UK to see if they can help to rescue people lost at sea, as well as support with mud rescues and shoreline searches, and they could play a crucial role in the search and rescue process moving forward.

The potential of drones to assist with medical emergencies and natural disasters, if regulation permits, is vast. They could form an ultra-flexible, automated logistics network to deliver medication in rural areas with unusable roads or affected by poor weather conditions and could fly over disaster areas to provide improved mobile and internet connectivity. They could also hover over wildfires, equipped with thermal cameras, to identify hotspots for firefighters to conduct water drops, and locate communities that need help after a natural disaster that emergency crews can’t get access to.

However, as is the case with all new technological advances, which are making the world increasingly open, new hazards and security risks always come to light, and drones are no exception. If used in the hands of the wrong people, such as terrorists or drug smugglers, drones could be harmful and utilised for violent outcomes.

Drones also have the potential to injure people or damage property if they fall from above or crash into buildings, as well as jeopardise privacy given they are virtually all equipped with cameras. For these reasons, drones are subject to tight regulation from governments and industry bodies, such as the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), and are currently banned from flying above people or buildings, and pilots are required to keep them in their line of sight. Recognising the benefits that drones can bring, however, several businesses have complained that this is inhibiting innovation and are lobbying for looser regulations, and time will tell whether this is achieved. 

While they are not an entirely new invention, drones are headed for new heights in the business world and have the increasing potential to be used as a force for good. They provide a cost effective, accurate, and secure alternative to traditional aerial footage methods, and if used in the right way, they could transform the way services and products are delivered. The risks associated with increased drone use and accessibility, however, cannot be ignored and it is important that they are tightly regulated, but in a way that allows innovation to flourish and drones to reach their full potential by creating new business and operating models.

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