London, UK - Most drones in use today are either cheap toys or expensive weapons. But interesting commercial uses are starting to emerge in the middle, says Tom Standage, The Economist’s deputy editor and head of digital strategy. He is the author of a Technology Quarterly report on drones, published in today’s edition of the newspaper.
Consumer drones are the most numerous kind, and military drones account for the majority of spending. But the fastest-growing part of the market is the area in between, where new commercial opportunities are starting to emerge. The report considers the evolving technology, assesses the emerging opportunities and examines the new challenges that drones pose for regulators.
Fierce competition in the consumer market has made drones cheaper, more reliable and more capable in recent years. These drones are not descended from military drones, but owe more to smartphones, from which they have borrowed sensors, radios and cameras. The market for consumer drones is dominated by DJI, a Chinese company that is considered “the Apple of drones” for the quality and reliability of its products, defying the stereotype of Chinese firms.
The proliferation of consumer drones prompted America’s Federal Aviation Administration to draw up rules formalising commercial use, which came into force in 2016. This cleared the way for commercial use worldwide, because many other countries follow the FAA’s regulatory lead. But despite widespread media coverage of the potential for delivery drones to deliver small packages, other applications, which use drones as flying cameras and sensors, provide more immediate opportunities.
Goldman Sachs estimates that $100 billion will be spent between 2016 and 2020 on military and civilian drones. When it comes to commercial use of drones, four sectors will be most important:
- Construction (accounting for $11.2bn): using drones to scan building sites and quarries allows construction companies to keep track of progress and monitor supplies of raw materials. “Reality capture” allows direct comparisons between the state of a site in the real world, and the architect’s digital plans
- Agriculture ($5.9bn): drones equipped with multi-spectral cameras can measure crop health, allowing water, pesticides and fertiliser to be more accurately applied. This improves yields and reduces chemical run-off
- Insurance ($1.4bn): assessment and inspection (for example, seeing how much damage a storm has done to a building’s roof) is much faster using drones—and safer than sending people up ladders
- Infrastructure ($1.1bn): drones are ideally suited to inspecting wind turbines, pipelines, solar farms and offshore platforms. In future this could be done entirely automatically by “drone in a box” systems that pop up regularly to collect data
Cargo-carrying drones may take longer than expected to deliver the goods, however. Current regulations do not allow drones to be flown over populated areas, and require line-of-sight to an operator at all times. These restrictions will only be relaxed when safety concerns have been addressed, and systems have been developed to ensure that drones do not pose a threat to people in the air or on the ground. Regulation and technology will have to evolve together. New air-traffic control systems capable of handling large numbers of drones automatically will also be needed if delivery drones (let alone people-carrying taxi drones) are to become a reality. Commercial drones are just starting to take off—but don’t order that drone-delivered pizza just yet.
A link to this Technology Quarterly Report on drones can be found here: TECHNOLOGY QUARTERLY TAKING FLIGHT
For more information and to interview Tom Standage on this topic, please contact:
Tom Amos/The Economist (US), firstname.lastname@example.org /+1 212 541 0583
Holly Donahue/The Economist (UK), email@example.com /+44 (0) 20 7576 8379
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