What is the future of drones?

Unmanned aerial vehicles are now playing a significant role in our daily lives. Over the next decade, as regulations and air safety mechanisms evolve further, drones are likely to be essential to everything we do.

For many years drones were for recreational users. Anyone who built model planes or helicopters embraced the next generation of remote controlled aircraft. Then commercial operators saw the immense benefits that the mobile units brought. Organisations saw cost and time savings, exciting opportunities, and suddenly a new industry was born.

For everyone at Coverdrone, it’s been quite a journey watching the developments in technology, dealing with the ever-changing insurance requirements, and of course witnessing what the drone operators are capable of delivering for customers.

That “new” industry is probably at least ten years old now. Each year the complexity and reliability of drone equipment has improved; from longer-lasting batteries to how photographic and survey data is recorded and transmitted back to base. It’s been a steep learning curve, and manufacturers, authorities and insurers have been kept busy as the UAV scene has boomed and thrown up new challenges.

As with most emerging technologies, winning over a sceptical public has been essential. Thankfully, for every negative story about drones there are ten positive ones. Whether it’s improving safety on railways or at offshore energy plants, giving medics and healthcare officials delivery options, or vital inspections at otherwise potentially dangerous industrial locations – UAVs can perform tasks quickly, safely and cost effectively.

Are drones like robots?

Until recently, most drones were flown by a ground-based operator. There are limitations, namely being able to see where the drone is. Using an assistant to monitor the drone’s camera view gives more flexibility, but regulations have also limited commercial drone operators’ options. In many countries (and the common sense approach) you must keep a drone in a visual line of sight (VLOS).

Mention the word “autonomous” and some people start to panic. It’s the buzz word in motoring, with many of the world’s biggest tech and car manufacturers collaborating on projects to launch driverless vehicles. The same is possible for drones.

As detailed air maps have been produced, and cutting-edge software from companies such as Altitude Angels has emerged, it’s enabled vital drone-to-drone communications to take place in real time. Suddenly UAVs using artificial intelligence (AI) is more reality than possibility. This means a drone can follow a designated route but make decisions to alter course if required.

Safety is the number one priority. With systems in place to control where drones fly, and update them if airspace conditions change, both users and the general public will enjoy greater peace of mind. Insurance will be in place to offer equipment and liability cover should accidents occur, but that’s no different than insisting that car drivers or aeroplane operators carry the right levels of cover.

With drones programmed to use city maps in conjunction with air traffic control data, safe routes can be mapped out to enable small unmanned aircraft to fly at heights that do not interfere with other traffic, communication masts or buildings.

What are the UAV benefits to business?

Machine learning will lead to smarter UAVs. The drones won’t necessarily make all their own decisions, but in some cases that might be more convenient and appropriate. This could be last-minute alterations to flight paths if an unexpected flock of birds appears, or if smoke from a fire was likely to ruin a drone’s film footage. Then it would make immediate calculations based on available information fed to it from cloud-based data services.

For other improvements based on the use of Big Data, after each flight, drone information will enable engineers to make changes to routines – to delivery greater benefits. When assessing building structures, for example, if no faults are found on parts of the structure after several viewings, it might make sense to inspect certain areas less frequently – if safe to do so, and agreed by a client. The drone would then calculate more efficient flying routes to continue capturing the required data.

The really significant changes will come with business-to-consumer services (B2C). Delivery drones have been much-hyped in recent months, with global organisations like Amazon pushing hard to move some goods from road-based vehicles to airborne drop-offs. That’s an exciting prospect, being able to order online and, potentially, have a product delivered by air within the hour – with additional flexibility of numerous drop-off locations.

To achieve that, the aviation authorities must be content that drones will not impact on commercial airliners in built-up zones. Drone activity will be integrated with airliner routes. Safe channels through towns and cities will be agreed. This could take petrol and diesel engines off the road, and improve delivery efficiencies as drones communicate direct with customers’ mobile phones to arrange collection times and locations. No missed deliveries!  

How will drones improve society?

Enjoying additional convenience thanks to drones is one thing, but helping society is a really exciting prospect. We have mentioned medical deliveries earlier, and utilising UAVs that can avoid traffic delays and get vital medicine to patients will save lives. The same is true for organ transplants, potentially transported to hospitals much quicker to facilitate urgent organ operations.

Tackling the many aspects of climate change will also involve drones. From assessing sea and estuary levels to avert flood damage, to coordinating river flows with reservoir requirements, such data will improve the ability of authorities to react the situations.

Finally, with so much pressure on police forces, drones could extend the reach of existing CCTV networks. This could offer additional comfort to communities in need of foot patrols, instead watching from above by UAVs that transmit live footage to the units that are ready to respond.

Drones are a force for good. Before long they will pass above us largely unnoticed, going about their business, working hard to improve our lives.