Drones: helping businesses with their high-flying potential

Originally invented for military purposes, the word “drone” now conjures up images of recreational devices for aerial photography and aimed at the general public. However, there are much more varied and ambitious applications of such technology that could drive businesses forward. Whether it be surveillance, delivery or 3D modeling: the potential is enormous. 

Automated air transport, myth or reality?

At the 2016 CES international technology trade show in Las Vegas, all the media’s attention was turned towards Chinese company Ehang. It showed off its prototype for a new drone capable of carrying a human passenger. It would fly completely autonomously, with only a tablet to set the destination.

One year later, in February 2017, the Dubai public transport agency gave its backing to the idea, which some deemed unrealistic, by announcing its intention to introduce a fleet of flying taxis in the coming year. Perhaps the concept of drone transport is not so farfetched after all?

Amazon certainly doesn’t think so. The American online retailer regularly files new patents to protect its research into automated aerial deliveries. The Amazon Prime Air project, which once could have passed as an April Fool’s joke, is now pioneering the industry.

In France, the national postal service has teamed up with specialist startup Atechsys to look into areas where aerial vehicles would be better placed than humans.

However, none of the above-mentioned players are seriously considering direct-to-door delivery. A much more plausible solution is for drones to deliver packages to collection points.

Monitoring and ground analysis

The agricultural industry is already taking full advantage of the opportunities offered by drones. Capable of covering large areas of difficult terrain, aerial vehicles equipped with cameras are being used to analyse soil, optimise irrigation and monitor crops.

As time goes by, drones are becoming increasingly specialised, with cameras able to analyse the environment with even greater precision. Multispectral imagery (using photos taken with different wavelengths) has made it possible to identify sick plants in a plot, so as to avoid treating those that are healthy.

Similarly, autom ated flights now allow us to monitor vulnerable sites and quickly locate any pests.

Drones and 3D modeling

Combined with systems like Lidar (laser-based mapping), cameras on modern drones are also used to study terrain and topography. In the manufacturing and real estate industries, this technology opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for Building Information Modeling (BIM).

For this, specialist firms most often use photogrammetry, the 3D recomposition of images using photographs taken from several viewpoints. By studying the parallax between different viewpoints, algorithms can calculate volume and measure distances from each various points in the structure.

With added texture, these 3D images could be fed into a rendering engine and used in a application for virtual reality tours around a historic monument.

In the building industry, the role of drones is not just limited to 3D modeling. For example, it could also be applied to locate thermal bridges on the exterior of buildings.

The sky’s the limit

According to PwC’s analysts, the sector is only in its infancy. Their predictions suggest that the market for drone-powered business solutions will have an annual worth of $127 bn by 2020, despite only being valued at $2 bn in 2016. In their conclusions, they note that the boom is not simply down to the intrinsic capabilities of drones, but also their ability to integrate with other technology and collect data to supply other tools.

Moreover, they highlight eight key commercial applications of drones, which cover infrastructure management, the media, insurance and telecommunications.

In the meantime, the concepts keep on coming — getting ever more complex. In Japan, for instance, a team of researchers are working on building miniature drones that can pollinate flowers as they fly. In the future, these mechanical bees could carry out their mission as a completely independent swarm driven by artificial intelligence.

So, it looks like drones have got off to a flying start. And as intelligent on-board systems become more widespread, there should be no stopping them. Imagine a drone capable of detecting ‘anomalies’ by comparing its on-board digital mock-up to a series of photos taken on the ground. Using decision-making algorithms or artificial intelligence, tomorrow’s drones will be able to fly solo (obviously), and conduct precise missions without any human intervention.

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Mohammed Sijelmassi

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