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Saffet Uyanık

Performing Better and Faster – Drones Becoming Fundamental in Many Businesses

Issue 2 - 2019
Originally viewed as a piece of sophisticated military technology or a hobbyist’s tool, the Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) industry, with a US$14.1 billion global market value, has established a presence in the corporate world over the past years. As innovators explore new uses, businesses across industries realized that drones have multiple commercial applications, some of which go beyond basic surveillance and recording purposes. In particular, the dull, dirty, or dangerous jobs.

Expanding rapidly in recent years, the commercial use of drones, also known as Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), presents new opportunities to businesses and governments for commercial and recreational purposes. Initially viewed as sophisticated military technology, the commercial use of drones has increased dramatically due to their ever-expanding capabilities. Businesses around the world have increasingly turned to drones for a variety of commercial applications, and they are already using them to transform some industries. UAS technology can help to accomplish time-consuming and challenging tasks while reducing costs and potential risks. There is a growing trend to adopt drones to replace existing solutions that involve humans, such as inspection of powerlines or wind turbines. Over the past few years, drones have been utilized in certain sectors, most notably construction, agriculture, and insurance. As useful tools for engineers, drones can reach remote and difficult to access areas quickly and provide data for an overview of a given situation. Drones serve as an extension of the operators and assist the accomplishment of various tasks as promptly as possible, saving time, personnel, and money. Insurance companies use drones to inspect damaged assets, and farmers use them to monitor crops and collect soil data. Drones are also utilized for the monitoring of livestock and locating missing persons. As technology evolves and matures, innovators explore new uses. Drones with mission-specific payloads are also used for delivering lab samples from medical clinics to hospitals or to perform accident prevention and response to offshore refineries.

In addition, leading tech giants like Amazon heavily invest in drone services such as drone taxis and drone deliveries, while some companies focus on providing Internet connection to remote areas with specially equipped drones. According to The Library of Parliament (the main information repository and research resource for the Parliament of Canada), drones used for recreational purposes currently represent the largest civilian market in terms of the number of units sold; however, commercial drones are projected to be the fastest-growing segment of the civilian market in terms of revenue. It is estimated that 74% of the drones sold are used for recreational purposes, and 26% are used for non-recreational purposes. The American multinational investment bank and financial services company, Goldman Sachs Group, predicts that military, recreational, and commercial drones will represent a US$100 billion market opportunity between 2016 and 2020. Supporting this statement, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the drone industry in the U.S. will result in the creation of about 100,000 jobs and have a US$82 billion impact on the economy by 2025.

Another potentially immediate economic impact of the drone industry comes in the form of job creation. As commercial drone usage increases, the number of operators and technicians will also increase accordingly to maintain this billion-dollar industry. According to Global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, the United States is a particularly strong source of commercial growth, with the value of drone activity rising from US$40 million in 2012 to about US$1 billion in 2017. Thanks to the increasing interest in commercial drone usage, start-ups have attracted more than US$3 billion in funding for new UAS applications, while OEMs have received almost half that amount of around US$1.4 billion. By 2026, McKinsey estimates that commercial drones will have an annual impact of US$31 billion to US$46 billion on the country’s GDP, and the developments within the United States could signal how commercial drone usage and investment will proceed in other markets.

Present uses of commercial drones

As the commercial drone industry continues to evolve, widespread drone-based usage is transforming business models across sectors. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), 2.85 million small drones could fill the sky by 2022, and 450,000 of them will be used for commercial purposes. The current application areas of drones are virtually limitless. From wildlife conservation to disease control, emergency response to insurance, UAVs are being used in multiple sectors. Among promising applications are crop monitoring, construction site management, search-and-rescue operations, surveying, and firefighting. The ability to safely and quickly gather data and to access inaccessible locations opens a world of possibilities for drone use.

Agriculture and Monitoring

Agriculture is one of the most crucial elements for the sustainability of human civilization. With the advancement of new technologies, agricultural drones help to achieve and improve what’s known as precision agriculture. Precision agriculture is a farming management concept that uses drones for agriculture to measure, observe, and respond to variability found in crops. In precision agriculture, drones have a range of uses, from soil and crop field analysis to planting and pesticide spraying. Drones with different imaging technologies like hyperspectral and multispectral cameras can be used to provide time and site-specific information regarding crop health. Drones can also identify drier regions in a field, to determine and irrigate such areas with better techniques. The drones save farmers money by helping them identify failing plants early and mapping and studying the farmland and its irrigation systems. The drones can also be used to monitor the livestock and quickly gather and track useful data about animal health and population.

There are multiple uses for agricultural drones, including:

• Soil and Field Analysis

• Seed Planting

• Checking for weeds and spot treating plants

• Monitoring overall crop health

• Managing livestock and monitoring for health issues

• Crop Mapping and Surveying

• Irrigation Monitoring and Management

Agriculture drones range from $1,500 to over $20,000 for a commercial-grade spraying drone. The agricultural drone market is expected to grow by over 38% in the coming years, driven by increasing declining costs of drone equipment, which offers a quicker return on investment. While spraying is carried out mostly by using a single drone, rapidly developing technologies within the drone industry may allow much larger areas to be sprayed in the future with drone swarms. Drones are already capable of communicating with each other, so this could enable a swarm of drones to apply pesticides across whole fields in the future.

Construction and architecture

Construction companies also benefit from the use of drones. Currently, the construction sector appears to predominately use drones for mapping, surveying, and monitoring. By using a drone, architects can create 3D renderings of the structures they aim to build by quickly using the aerial shots and footage of a property. Thanks to this capability, architects can create real-world concepts of their projects. For the architects, this ability is indispensable in creating accurate designs. Additionally, the data collected during the drone flight can be used land surveys, which allows the contractors to lower the working hours without going on foot and survey a property before the start of construction. Drones also help with monitoring the job’s progress, which is quite a challenging task considering the site supervisors need to travel to multiple job sites to keep track of progress at each site. By monitoring workers in real-time, contractors can ensure that safety equipment is being appropriately used, eliminating potential accidents before they happen. Another aspect the drones can help with is construction company marketing. Drones in construction work can be used to provide marketing materials for contractors in the form of aerial imagery and video footage of the projects to attract new clients.

Engineering and inspections

Infrastructure is the fundamental facilities and systems serving a country, city, or another area, including the services and facilities necessary for its economy to function. There are several reasons why using drones to solve infrastructure-related tasks is beneficial. Using drones for engineering and infrastructure inspections reduce both required personnel numbers, safety risks, environmental impact, facility downtime, and overall maintenance costs. Limiting the number of dangerous jobs and replacing the human workforce with unmanned drones where necessary will not only decrease the risks involved but will also reduce the environmental impact, considering the use of drones means less CO2 emission compared to the use of heavier machinery such as helicopters.

As an extension of infrastructure inspection, drones can be used for missions to support operations at power plants. Drones improve the safety while reducing the operational and performance costs. Inspecting large hard-to-reach boilers at power plants, assessing panels that are not operating correctly in solar farms, and getting an overview of after major storms are both cheaper and safer when using drones. Another advantage of drones they can also be used for inspecting the electricity networks due to the long stretch of power lines in case of an extensive inspection over long distances. There are several advantages of using drones for inspecting high voltage power lines and towers. Equipped with a high-resolution camera, drones can fly along the approximately 7,000 km of power lines to register corrosion and other issues that eventually lead to critical malfunctions.

Consequently, drones have also started to be utilized by MROs and car manufacturers to inspect airplanes and facilities respectively. AAR Corporation, which provides independent aviation and expeditionary services, recently started a one-year trial using a Donecle drone for aircraft inspections at its Miami facility. The Donecle drones are equipped with the latest image analysis algorithms, which will assist the inspectors in the detection of defects and damages (including lightning strikes) on the surface of the airframe. This allows demonstrations of various drones and is part of AAR’s broader investment in MRO digitization. Because aircraft inspections done by drones are not yet approved by the FAA, AAR will spend the next year performing the task by drone and in parallel, by its current manual process, to gather data.

Similarly, Ford Motor Company also started to use drones to inspect its Dagenham engine plant in the UK. With the help of drones, Ford claims that maintenance staff can check each plant in 12 minutes. The company adds that the whole production facility can be covered in a day. Before using drones, the maintenance and safety inspections took 12 hours to complete, and the company used automated extendable platforms and scaffolding.

Delivery and cargo

Drones can already deliver mail and medicine to hard-to-reach places. However, Google and Amazon are making significant investments in drone technology to expand the reach of commercial drones. Drone-based delivery services constitute one of the most obvious applications, thanks to drones, early delivery of medical services in remote areas is currently possible. While still restricted to a pretty low carry weight (25 kg, including the drone itself), delivery-by-drone is a promising application. Amazon`s CEO Jeff Bezos was doubted about the feasibility of his planned Amazon Prime Air; however, the promise of delivering goods directly to customers` doors by drones will only become more real as the technology continues to evolve and its capabilities expand.

Commercial drone use in Turkey

Unfortunately, there is not any specific data that shows the exact distribution of commercial or recreational drones used by private businesses or public institutions. According to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, there are 32,100 registered drones and 48,800 designated drone operators in Turkey. The most common drone model is the Chinese DJI drone, with over 80% market share. Unlike countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, there are only a handful of private businesses in Turkey which operate drones for commercial purposes. One of the biggest reasons is the DGCA classifies drones as aircraft, so every person who wants to use drones have to acquire a drone pilot license first. Another factor is since the drones are classified as aircraft; there are airspace restrictions bind them. Any drone heavier than 500gr cannot be used within 9km of airports or in closed spaces and cannot fly above 120m. Although not as common as some of the examples mentioned above, drones are mostly used for media coverage (over 70%), mapping, land survey, pesticide spraying, and wind turbine maintenance in Turkey. The most significant setback for commercial drone use in Turkey is the lack of investments and incentives. To give an example, in 2018, Joby Aviation, a startup company in the United States, received more than US$100 million investment while the total amount of investments and incentives in Turkey was less than US$100 million. In any case, each of the tasks mentioned above requires specific technologies and drones, which hinders the full realization of the commercial drone market as we need to develop sophisticated drone platforms in different shapes and sizes. To increase the volume of commercial drone use and support the domestic drone industry, Turkey should encourage local startups and provide incentives for these companies. The key to the future of the commercial drone market is not only technological developments but also public acceptance and adequate regulation


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