As far as emerging technologies go, drones have proved exceptional at capturing the imagination of the media.
Whether the key suspect in the forced shutdown of airports around the globe,1 or touted as the next big thing in online shopping delivery services, drones have well and truly landed in the zeitgeist. But beyond the headlines, drones – also commonly referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) – are beginning to prove their mettle to business through their extraordinary data collecting abilities.
Not only is the technology rapidly evolving, so is the industry: according to a report by PwC UK, drones are expected to have a net impact of £42 billion by 2030 in the UK alone, while globally, recent estimates tip the drone market to reach as high as US$144 billion by 2025.2 This is being propelled by their limitless applications: at this year’s CES, the famed global technology conference in Las Vegas, new products unveiled included a marine drone doubling as sports equipment and a scientific data gatherer, and a ‘bee-like’ drone that surveys property and regularly returns to its ‘hive’ to charge.3
The image most people conjure when thinking of a drone may be a small white, propellered device, a flashy toy for amateur and professional photographers, or an unmanned military aircraft sent to observe or destroy targets. These are two of the most common types of drone. The first, known as a multi-rotor drone, specialises in vertical ascents and has the ability to hover in one place or move steadily to enable the inspection of objects. They usually have four rotors each with a propeller, but can include as many as eight, and tend to be easier to use (albeit more expensive) than the second most common type of drone, the fixed wing UAV.
The fixed wing has a build that more closely resembles an aeroplane, and their main advantage is the significantly longer distance they can travel as well as the ability to remain airborne for longer periods, and reach higher altitudes than their rotored cousins.4 They do however tend to be more complicated to use and as such require a pilot skilled in operating these vehicles, different to those needed to operate a multi-rotor drone.
There are many more types of drones that serve more specialised needs, such as a fixed-wing hybrid, and other custom designs to meet specific industry and business requirements.
Drones are already in common practice in industries such as media and entertainment (as news eyewitnesses), in agriculture (in crop monitoring), and property development and planning (building inspections and surveying). But they are also forging new paths. Earlier this year PwC UK used drones as part of their auditing process, an industry first, measuring coal reserves for a European energy company. As a result, the time taken to analyse stock levels was dramatically reduced from four hours to just 30 minutes.5
It’s no surprise then that the versatility and potential of drones has earned them a place on PwC’s Essential Eight emerging technologies list. And businesses more broadly are beginning to explore the opportunities this technology offers. despite the use cases, and demonstrable efficiencies the technology delivers. According to a recent survey by PwC UK, 40 percent of businesses said they are expecting or planning to buy drone services, with 56 percent saying they are positive about drones and 33 percent reporting drones are already being used effectively by their industry.
Of course, their implementation is not as straightforward as launching one into the sky. Amazon has been grappling with regulatory and logistical challenges since showcasing their drone technology way back in 2013.6 Aviation laws are necessarily complex and stringent, varying greatly from country to country.
Trust among the public also remains an impediment to uptake. This is evident in PwC UK’s Building Trust in Drones survey which found that just 31 percent of respondents said they feel positive about the technology, with the biggest concerns being the risk of improper use, misuse by criminals, and the risk of an accident. Despite the demonstrable benefits drones offer, plenty of obstacles still must be overcome before they become fully mainstream.
Despite the challenges, many types of drone are ready to be adopted, with the ability to improve business outcomes now. Here are five ways that drones can be leveraged to transform business:
Survey and mapping
Faster and cheaper than traditional surveying methods, drones improve the ability to collect the visual data of a site. Their ability to detect changes in volumetrics, and send data straight to the cloud for collaborative purposes, helps create one source of truth.
Camera and sensor equipment on drones can be used to convey live images of a project, which allows managers to ensure design and schedule are adhered to, and quickly address problems with both.
Asset management and maintenance
Instead of sending out a maintenance team, drones can quickly identify degradation in infrastructure, allowing businesses to more efficiently deploy their human resources, as well as reducing their personal safety risks.
Public safety and emergency response
The use of drones in emergency situations is well documented, and they are effectively being rolled out in supporting firefighting, search and rescue efforts to help assess a situation before first responders are deployed. The strides in improvements such as distance and camera resolution is helping overcome the limitations that have previously held drones back from being used more widely.
Beyond the agricultural applications that aid farmers, such as the ability to identify health issues with crops early, drones can also avert potential environmental disasters by detecting the leaking of hazardous materials, while sensors can help assess air quality and pollution levels, enabling government bodies to alert citizens to health risks.
There may still be plenty of hype surrounding drones, but it’s important that organisations see the technology as much more than a tech add-on. It’s all about the data. PwC believes drones will become one of the most important sources of data and insights of the physical world in the coming years, and their proliferation means organisations must move fast in order to avoid losing out to their competitors who adopt early.
The real benefit lies in taking the data, processing, analysing and interpreting the results and applying them to improve existing business. This also means ensuring the right talent – from technology specialists to data analysts – is on board to enable this. With the pace of technology evolution only increasing, the time to get your drone plans off the ground is now.
For more information on how drones can be used for business, visit PwC UK’s drones practice.
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