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From hobbyists? pastime to burgeoning commercial industry ? the rise of drones

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or drones as they are commonly referred to, have been a hobbyist’s pastime and a staple of military reconnaissance for decades. But today, they have found their way into commercial and civilian use. New, cheaper and easy-to-use drone platforms; research and technology developments in allied fields like materials, mobile, cloud, and internet; and the pending federal regulations are enabling the manufacture, test and use of UAS in umpteen industries, giving rise to a burgeoning commercial UAS industry.

Multiple studies have analysed the potential of this virgin technology market and adoption. A Business Insider Intelligence report released mid 2015 predicts an annual growth rate (CAGR) of 19% between 2015 and 2020, compared to 5% growth on the military side.

A 2013 report by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) says, “Unmanned aerial systems (UAS/drones) in agriculture have the potential to be a $3 billion market in just the first three years after the FAA opens the commercial airspace. Over the next decade, this number will rise to almost $30 billion.”

Proliferating commercial use

An analysis of the first 1000 exemptions granted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) until mid 2015 to operate commercial UAS in the US national airspace shows the adoption of this technology spans more than 25 major industries led by general aerial photography, real estate, aerial survey, agriculture and construction.

The vantage point a drone offers provides a great perspective to the picture taken, many times as important as the subject itself. Unlike planes and helicopters, which are expensive and time-consuming, microdrones allow you to capture breathtaking aerial shots quickly and inexpensively. Thanks to the GPS-Position-Hold technology, blur-free images can be achieved even in strong winds. With data transfer to the mdBaseStation taking place in real time, the camera can be set optimally for the subject, to achieve the best result possible.

Growing global population and increasing threats of climate change are encouraging farmers to adopt technology and practices that enable increased productivity and sustainable management of the farmland. Drones are seen as the most cost-effective and easy-to-use technology, driving a revolution of sorts in agriculture sector across the world. When equipped with relevant sensors, microcontrollers and GPS receivers, drones support farmers in precise crop monitoring and management, irrigation equipment monitoring, provide important data on the type of soil, weed and pest control and cattle herd monitoring to name a few uses. These established applications of UAVs in farming show that a successful and environmentally friendly implementation in the agricultural business is already possible and will continue to be of great importance.

With their ability to sample the atmosphere in difficult to reach, remote locations where weather data is scarce, drones can uncover meteorological secrets critical to improving weather forecasts.   Be it collecting storm data, pollution data, acting as supplements to weather balloons for atmospheric sounding measurements at low levels of atmosphere, or submarine drones gathering marine observations for a better understanding of the oceans and predict weather in advance, drones’ contribution to weather prediction and climate change are immense.  While research organisations have been testing methods for using drones in meteorological data collection for years, operational drones for weather analysis have only been put into practice in the last few years.

NASA’s Global Hawk drone spent 11 hours collecting data over tropical storm Nadine in the Eastern Atlantic Ocean on Sept. 23, 2013. The image shows the Global Hawk (red dot) returning to Wallops. (NASA Wallops)

Real estate professionals are increasingly using this technology to take videos and pictures to create dynamic videos and pictures of their properties, while construction companies are increasingly monitoring the activity at a site using drones. Police and fire safety professionals have an immense use of this technology in urban riot control, surveillance of large public gatherings, critical infrastructure surveillance among other uses.

These apart, UAS support a range of commercial applications including infrastructure and utility inspection, emergency management, aerial survey, oil and gas, mining, advertising, environmental, insurance, advertising, newsgathering and landscaping.

Many drones come with GPS and autopilot system, enhancing its flexibility and usability. A drone on autopilot can take aerial photos and video much better than any pilot can, even in difficult weather conditions.  A drone flying in autopilot mode is monitoring and adjusting it’s location thousands of times per second. Having a drone with GPS autopilot flight system is essential for aerial photogrammetry and 3D mapping. For aerial photography, it is great to let the drone fly on autopilot on a given route, while you concentrate on capturing terrific video and photographs.  For applications such as crop monitoring and site surveying, letting the drone fly on autopilot is a great option.

However, many sectors are experimenting, standardizing, evolving the best practices of using this technology and ther is a clear need for more research involving beyond-line-of-sight operations, nighttime operations, operations over congested areas and those involving larger platforms. Clarity over the regulatory framework and full-scale integration of UAS into the national airspace will further unleash the innovation leading to advancements in industries like healthcare, graphic imaging, remote sensing, data management and even manned aviation. 

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