To many people, drones seem like little more than glorified remote control vehicles. Yes, they’re great for taking amazing vacation shots, but not much else. However, this view of drones is a little short-sighted. It turns out that the market is growing all the time and some rather clever innovators are coming up with multiple applications.
In 2019, retail sales of enterprise drones were around 12,900. In other words, companies around the world were hardly using them at all. By 2023, however, Gartner estimates that demand for enterprise drones will hit a massive 122,000 per year — nearly ten times the amount.
But what’s driving this change? Well, as you might expect, there are many factors involved. One is the reduction in the cost of drone manufacturing. Vendors are benefiting from the smartphone revolution and higher volumes, allowing them to lower their unit costs. Other factors include improved regulatory environment and innovative thinking. Companies and governments know that drones have the potential to save labor and solve many of the world’s most pressing problems, driving demand even higher.
There’s also the fact that drones have the potential to boost productivity. Firms view them as a kind of multipurpose robot, doing tasks that might have taken regular workers hours in a matter of minutes.
Experts like to classify drones into various generations to help them understand the evolution of the technology better. The transition from one generation to another represents a step change in technology, where drones gain new capabilities.
Generation 1: Remote Control Aircraft.
The first generation of drones were virtually identical to remote control toy cars. They had receivers and would pick up instructions for where to go next from the human controller.
Generation 2: Cameras.
The next generation of drones had static cameras. These allowed them to survey wide areas rapidly under the control of a human operator.
Generation 3: Dynamic Cameras.
Over time, drone manufacturers began including two-axis gimbals, HD video options and safety mode. These features improved the quality of video feeds.
Generation 4: Improved Instrumentation.
Fourth generation drones began using three-axis gimbals for better picture quality plus a host of other features, including safety modes, autopilot and enhanced instrumentation.
Generation 5: Better Video.
Generation 5 drones took all of the improvements of fourth generation drones and built on them further. Operators got 4K resolutions, 360-degree gimbals and some intelligent autopilot features.
Generation 6: Commercial Compatibility.
Eventually, the industry progressed to the point where it was able to fulfill commercial compliance regulations. Many models had payload adaptability, allowing them to transport cargo from point A to point B.
Generation 7: Full Compliance.
Seventh generation drones are fully compliant with all regulatory standards. These have features such as payload interchangeability, safety modes that come on automatically, and enhanced self-piloting and autonomy. They can function even outside of the range of a human operative.
9 drone applications.
The development of drone technology is impressive, but what can individuals, businesses and companies actually use these devices for?
Perhaps the most innovative concept is to use drones for entertainment. Already, event planners are using drones at public events to create light shows to entertain the crowds. In the future, we are likely to see many more applications emerge. For example, we may see the emergence of battle drones, similar to the land-based robots used in series like Robot Wars. Competitors would build modified armored drones and then pit them against each other in cage matches.
2. Monitoring wildlife.
Poaching is currently a massive international concern. Many species are on the brink of extinction because of over-hunting.
Unfortunately, policing game reserves and national parks thoroughly is expensive, and many nations with the biggest poaching problems simply can’t afford it.
Here, again, drones can help. Pilots can use drones to cover vast areas of land and track poaching activity. They can then launch targeted responses, intercepting poachers before they can make any kills.
Drones are also good for monitoring wildlife without disturbing behaviors or habitats. With the right technology, camera crews no longer have to drag heavy equipment through the jungle to get the perfect shot. They can use drones instead.
3. Law enforcement.
We’re also likely to see drones emerging as a critical component of law enforcement. Drones can survey large crowds and easily pursue assailants, without the need for offices to track directly on foot. Drones are also significantly less costly to run than police helicopters, making tracking potential felons much simpler.
There are obvious applications for border control. Instead of posting guards every few hundred yards (which would be prohibitively expensive), border drones can take their place. Pilots in remote stations fly drones looking for illegal border crossings and then forward information to the local police on the ground. As with poaching, they can then intercept the people moving into the country and process them according to the law.
4. Weather monitoring.
Monitoring extreme weather events from satellites is possible, but they don’t always provide the most granular data. It can be hard for scientists to learn about the specifics of extreme events, without sensors on the ground.
In the past, the best way to learn about the nature of a storm was to fly right through the center of it in a specialist aircraft. However, this approach was notoriously dangerous and put people’s lives at risk.
Drones, though, could provide just as much data without the risk to human life. Onboard sensors could track weather events and transmit more accurate information to weather forecasters than ground-based observation stations alone.
5. Sea rescue.
Finding people lost at sea is another tricky problem conventional technology struggles to solve. Lifeboats and helicopters typically have limited range and line of sight. They can only scan a limited area of the sea in a given time frame, putting anyone in danger at higher risk.
Drones, though, could solve this problem. A rescue service could conceivably field hundreds of them to scan multiple ocean segments, covering a much wider area than the helicopter-lifeboat combination. Drones could then use heat-sensing equipment to automatically detect people in the water and forward their location to search and rescue vehicles.
There are many other search and rescue applications too. For example, some charities and rescue organizations want to use drones to deliver vital supplies to war-torn regions. Others want to use them to supply food and medicine to rescue victims before crews arrive on the scene.
6. Aerial photography.
Capturing aerial footage was, historically, notoriously expensive. Companies and individuals had to either hire helicopters or cranes, which cost a fortune. However, regular consumer devices, such as the DJI Mavic 3 Pro, provide more functionality and better images at lower cost.
This change in the economics of the situation means that we’re going to see more aerial photography in cinematography. Already, journalists are using drones to capture live events from a distance, helping them to get out of harm’s way. TV channels are also using it for sports events to give fans a better view of the pitch.
Perhaps the most exciting application of drones is in last-mile delivery. The concept has been around for a while. Instead of using a van and van driver, companies want to load packages onto drones at the distribution center and then send them out to customers. The technology promises to reduce delivery time from the current standard of a day to just a couple of hours. It’s a remarkable change.
Using drones for last-mile delivery will undoubtedly change the nature of e-commerce shopping again. If people know that they can get goods and services at low cost almost immediately, the share of the sector versus brick-and-mortar will grow even more.
Many people are surprised to find out that collectively, as a species, we still aren’t very good at mapping terrain. Historically, companies did it with expensive surveys where they would physically put people on the ground to chart entire areas. The result is relatively inaccurate and mostly hand-drawn maps.
Drones with onboard sensing technology could change this. They can get closer to the ground than satellites and provide finer details. They could also make it easier to update maps in the future — something that is costly to do at present.
Lastly, we could see drones entering the agricultural sector to help raise yields. Drones could periodically monitor crops and then feed information back to the farmer. The farmer could then make decisions based on this information, avoiding unnecessary watering, harvesting or pesticide spraying in the process.
Precision agriculture could also help to improve food production in marginal areas. Drones could conceivably spray and harvest crops in the future, bringing them down from mountain sides or dangerous elevations.
In summary, the future applications of drones are tremendous. What’s more, this list is by no means exhaustive. There could be many more applications in the works that aren’t yet widely appreciated. We also don’t know how far the technology could progress. If payloads increase, then it means that drones could potentially fly people from one location to another.