Drones, or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), gained notoriety in the UK for disrupting more than 140,000 passengers and 1,000 flights at London’s Gatwick Airport. With research revealing that drones could contribute £42bn to UK GDP by 2030, they can clearly play an important role in bolstering the UK’s economy. With this in mind, the Vertical Flight Expo (VFE) team looks to the skies and reveals why collaboration is key for the future of flight.
UAS have a long history in military operations, dating back to the 1910s when the Ruston Proctor Aerial Target became the first pilotless winged aircraft in history. And, while the commercial drone market is still the smallest – compared to its military and consumer counterparts – significant levels of investment and research reveal that this is set to change and fast.
Recent industry reports reveal that just 30% of drone spend through 2020 will be driven by consumer and commercial/civil markets, with consumer drones continuing to drastically outsell their commercial counterparts. The sale of commercial drones doubled[i] in 2015, with BI Intelligence anticipating that the global sector will see 805,000 drones by 2021 – a five-year CAGR of 51%[ii]. This paints an interesting outlook and demonstrates that despite being the smallest category, the commercial sector holds the position as the fastest-growing drone market by revenue.
This is unsurprising when reviewing the current investment and research into drone use across the industry from precision agriculture, navigation and autonomy, inspection and monitoring, to airspace management, delivery and transport, entertainment and insurance. As the industry recognises the long-term potential of drones – not only to reduce costs but to vastly improve productivity and efficiency – traditional rotorcraft operators are addressing the impact this will have and how UAS and helicopters can work harmoniously together.
Speaking about the opportunities for UAS to assist in traditional helicopter operations, Robert Garbett, Chief Executive Officer, Drone Major Group – the world’s first global commercial organisation dedicated to connecting, supporting and trading with all stakeholders in the drone industry and VFE show partner – said: “We are already using drones commercially in areas such as forestry, and even delivering items from hospital to hospital on fixed routes.
“There are so many opportunities out there for technology developers and organisations who want to enhance and increase their efficiency to save money, save lives, and to increase the safety of operations. A good example of this would be the use of UAS in support of helicopter operations where a piloted system is not required or too expensive. Helicopter operators have been presented with an opportunity to expand their operational capabilities and widen their offering to clients through the adoption of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) systems for reconnaissance or shore to ship delivery tasks while retaining their specialist piloted systems for tasks requiring passenger transfer or specialist operations out of the scope of the capabilities of a UAS.
“This opportunity is not unique to helicopter operations and aviation operators worldwide are investigating the expansion of their capabilities through the integration of cargo carrying and other UAS.”
Poised for take-off
A quick look at UAS development reveals how autonomous aircraft can aid missions, increase efficiency and safety by taking on more dangerous or difficult operations. For example, devices equipped with thermal imaging cameras can help emergency response teams identify victims who are difficult to spot with the naked eye.
And, research within the industry is opening up possible applications within new sectors, such as Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS). For example, Delft University of Technology has developed an ‘Ambulance Drone’ which can deliver essential supplies for advanced life support. The prototype focuses on the delivery of an Automated Defibrillator (AED). With 800,000 people suffering from cardiac arrests each year in the EU, the solution was designed to relieve pressure on the emergency services and ensure that treatment can be delivered in the crucial five-minute window after a patient falls ill. The drone is equipped with a two-way video supported communication channel to improve first care[iii] and ensure use of the AED is carried out accurately.
In addition to emergency response, UAS can prove useful during natural disasters. For example, the technology can be used to assess local damage, locate victims and deliver aid in the aftermath of hurricanes and earthquakes. It can also be used to monitor and prevent disasters, such as forest fires. Surveillance drones, outfitted with thermal imaging cameras, can detect abnormal forest temperatures, helping to identify areas most prone to fires, and in some cases identify fires just three minutes after they begin helping to minimise damage to the environment and loss of life.
And, as climate change and poaching have dire effects on wildlife around the world, drones are enabling innovative approaches to protect and study global ecosystems. For example, using geospatial imagery, drones can be used to monitor and track animals, while also tagging and collecting samples. Here, companies such as DJI Innovations are using UAS to carry out important research without disturbing natural habitats.
Further assisting in the care of animals, drones are actively being used to monitor the health of small-herd cattle. A research project headed up by the University of Kentucky is exploring the role of technology for farming in rural America, in response to research that reveals some 2.5 million US cattle die every year from health issues. Often found grazing for extended periods of time, cattle can be difficult to monitor on a regular basis. Advances in UAS technologies offers the opportunity to identify each cow’s vital health information and location[iv]. While further advances in technology are enabling them to be used for herding. Ultimately, drones can assist with research and the management of livestock, they can also play a key role in precision agriculture where they help farmers accurately track inputs and yields.
Clearly, the benefits of drones are vast with further applications found across maritime, waste management, weather forecasting, energy, constructive planning, tourism, sports, insurance, urban planning and more.
Will drones replace helicopters?
There are such a wide array of applications and benefits, but the big question often driving a reluctance to embrace the technology is whether it will replace helicopters. With rapid advancements in technology and benefits that range from cost-effectiveness to portability, it is clear that there are some applications where drones will be more favourable. However, the technology is unlikely to replace, it is far more likely to assist.
Research into drone capabilities reveals that there are multiple reasons why this is the case. Endurance, by distance and duration, is one such reason. While limitations by payload, weather conditions and the simple use of helicopters as a form of transportation are unlikely to make any helicopter redundant in today’s landscape. However, by identifying the benefits and applications where drones can adequately support the shortfall of trained pilots, the technology’s easy operation, adaptability and affordability certainly make it an attractive option.
[i] CBInsights – State of Drone Technology: https://www.cbinsights.com/reports/CB-Insights_State-of-Drones-Tech.pdf