The market for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS, or drones) grows bigger every year, as more companies, industries, and governments find ways to use these aircraft. Because drones can easily carry lightweight cameras and other sensing equipment, they’re already utilized for inspection, surveillance, or data-gathering missions. But plans are under way to carry cargo and people, too.
“It depends on what study you read, but the commercial drone industry and light military [drone] market in 2018—in the US alone—was $2.6 billion. And by 2025 it will grow to $16.2 billion,” says Cameron Chell, co-founder and CEO of Canadian firm Draganfly, the world’s first commercial drone manufacturer.
Some studies suggest a much higher number. But whatever the real figure, there’s no denying the UAS industry’s current growth and prospects for more of it, regardless of where the hype surrounding the technology stands.
“I wouldn’t say all the hype is gone, but it is much reduced,” says Kay Wackwitz, a consulting aeronautical engineer and CEO of research and consulting firm Drone Industry Insights, based in Hamburg, Germany.
Most of the excitement generated in recent years has been aimed at attracting investment dollars to the small army of drone start-ups—and to the big ride-sharing companies like Uber that are itching to begin operating “flying taxis.” But a number of start-ups have scaled back their dreams, and some have even shut down after having learned how hard the technical challenges are, how long the road is to full certification, and how much of an investment would be required to produce a certificated and affordable finished product.
That shrinkage and recalibration within the industry, says Wackwitz, are a positive development. “Right now, [commercial drones are] in the valley of the ‘Gartner cycle,’ ” he explains, referring to the low spot in the development curve of any technology where the early hype has faded and the excitement level has fallen to about as low a point as it will ever go. “And that’s the place where the product really matures a lot. So from here, we only will go up again.”the valley of the ‘Gartner cycle,’ ” he explains, referring to the low spot in the development curve of any technology where the early hype has faded and the excitement level has fallen to about as low a point as it will ever go. “And that’s the place where the product really matures a lot. So from here, we only will go up again.”
Chinese Manufacturers Take a Hit
Competent and reasonably well-financed UAS manufacturers, equipment and parts makers, and operators are now on the cusp of breakout success, Wackwitz says. And most of them stand to benefit from the disappearance of Chinese drone manufacturers from the government market for commercial drones.
Last year, several US government agencies issued orders to their teams in the field to stop acquiring Chinese-made drones and to stop using any already in their inventory. In January, President Donald Trump extended that order to all of the federal government.
The concern, apart from the deepening US–China battle over trade and economic regulations, is that all Chinese UAS are suspected of containing hidden technologies that could allow them to collect data the US government views as secret or sensitive—and to do so without their operators’ or owners’ knowledge. DJI, which is based in China and is the world’s biggest drone manufacturer, denies that its products contain such spying capabilities.
“This is going to become a bigger issue, not a smaller issue,” Draganfly’s Chell says. “Data is the new oil. It means everything, and there are going to be more and more situations in which obtaining and protecting data is paramount.”
Until now, despite the billions of dollars invested in Western drone companies, few have been able to thrive in competition against the Chinese. Draganfly, which by industry standards is a relatively small player, has survived on its reputation for producing reliable and versatile UAS for sophisticated commercial users, and on its low-profile work on military drones for the United States and allied nations.
“We are now being brought in on all kinds of levels to fill this $500 million to $600 million vacuum that has been opened up in the market,” Chell says. “Anything that touches government land or government work cannot have a Chinese product attached to it. Few companies can fill that need. But we can fill some of it. And I definitely think others will be trying to fill that same vacuum.”
Published reports also suggest that the Trump administration is working on an executive order that would ban all federal agencies and departments from buying or using any foreign-made UAS, putting the United States in the position of openly distrusting the products of even friendly nations.
In response to the changes regarding the use of Chinese drones, Draganfly has already expanded its operations and product line and expects to grow even further. Other Western drone manufacturers are taking similar steps, though to what degree those outside the United States might be impacted by the potential executive order remains to be seen. Nor is it clear whether even Draganfly, with its track record of serving the US military, will be affected. Despite its operations in Southern California, it remains a Canadian company.
Moving Toward Ubiquity
For all the drone industry’s recent growth and hype, relatively few people have seen a commercial UAS at work. That, however, is about to change as drones move into the mainstream.
Because of the wide variety of both manned and unmanned aircraft, it’s difficult to compare purchase and operating costs unless you’re discussing specific aircraft and missions. However, it’s generally accepted that UAS are less expensive to purchase and operate than helicopters. Increasingly, drones are being used by businesses, governments, and individuals to accomplish aerial missions at a lower cost—and often more efficiently, too.
“I can put a man on the ground and [have him] walk it for several weeks to see where we’ll put in a logging access road, or I can put a LIDAR [light detection and ranging] unit on a drone and fly over that same area in a day and get a very accurate map, more accurate than any man could produce working on foot,” Chell says.
While much has been written about the threat drones pose to aviation safety, many people are now coming around to the technology’s potential to improve aviation safety—by taking humans out of the aircraft (see Scott Burgess and Mark Colborn’s article “Unmanned Systems Can Save Lives in High-Risk Manned Operations” in the Summer 2019 issue of ROTOR).
Police forces have become some of the most enthusiastic users of drones. Scarcely a week goes by in the United States that some police agency doesn’t arrest a suspect, locate a missing or injured person, or solve a complex crime without the assistance of a drone.
“Out of every 10 stories I review for possible inclusion in our newsletter, six or seven of them are about drones these days,” says Dan Schwarzbach, executive director/CEO of the Airborne Public Safety Association. “There are about 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country, and more fire departments than that, plus search-and-rescue and other organizations. But historically only about 350 of them could ever afford manned aircraft. The distinct advantage of a low-cost aerial platform with access to the national airspace at the low altitudes where we operate is now affordable to almost all public safety agencies through UAS.”
In fact, Draganfly was hailed in 2013 for being the first drone company to produce a UAS that saved a human life. When a Royal Canadian Mounted Police unit in Saskatchewan received a 911 call from a driver whose vehicle had gone off a very remote road and into a deep gully, the injured, dazed driver couldn’t tell operators his location.
Faced with a needle-in-the-haystack search, the Mounties deployed a helicopter equipped with night-vision technology toward the driver’s last known location based on his cell phone GPS data. But after several hours without any progress, they flew a small Draganfly drone equipped with an infrared camera. The smaller, more maneuverable drone could fly closer to the ground without risk to its pilot. Rather quickly, the drone’s camera picked up a tiny heat signature, which turned out to be the driver curled up in a ball at the base of a tree.
Developing Nations See Utility
While Westerners assume UAS will have their biggest and best uses in North America, China, and Europe—and in difficult commercial environments such as working around offshore oil rigs—drones may have as much, if not more, of a positive impact on developing regions.
“Everyone automatically thinks ‘urban’ air mobility,” when the subject of drones comes up, Wackwitz says. “But we forget about ‘rural’ air mobility, which is where unmanned aerial vehicles have few negative social impacts and lots of potential for positive social impact.
“Right now in Kigali, Rwanda, they’re talking about ways to reach people who are unreachable,” Wackwitz continues. “A seventh of the world’s population—1 billion people—don’t have year-round access to roads. So the African Drone Forum is working on the idea that you just don’t build a road to every village so long as you can easily and cheaply fly in the essentials,” using somewhat larger and more capable cargo drones than the smaller units that are more likely to be deployed in crowded cities.
If successful, using UAS in place of trucks to carry food, medicine, and other necessities to isolated areas would mimic the widespread introduction of cell phones in Africa, which has allowed a huge percentage of the population to simply leapfrog over the use of landlines. A San Francisco–based company called Zipline is already delivering medicine and other lifesaving goods to people in Ghana and Rwanda who can’t reach doctors or hospitals. Meanwhile, UPS in 2019 received approval from the FAA to fly commercial drones in the US with certain restrictions.
Social Acceptance Still a Hurdle
Aviation operations carry inherent risk, and UAS operations are no exception. Just as with manned aircraft, however, the risks incurred by operating drones can be mitigated, Wackwitz says. Much will depend, however, on how UAS are viewed by the communities they’ll fly over, which in turn will greatly influence the regulatory framework for drone operations in the United States, Europe, and, eventually, every other nation.
“In China, social acceptance [of drones] isn’t such a big concern yet,” says Wackwitz. “A company called Ele.me, an Alibaba company, last year made more than 8,000 [drone] deliveries around Shanghai.”
Drones are accepted in that densely packed city for two reasons: they mostly deliver food, and the drones don’t actually stop on individual doorsteps. Instead, they land on street corners, in parks, or at other locations with adequate room to maneuver, where they’re met by scooter drivers, who perform the last mile of the delivery, including to high-rise apartments or offices.
“It would be much harder to do that here in Hamburg. These things flying around everyone would be unwelcome,” Wackwitz says. “Or, say, in Chicago, if you annoy a hundred people [just] so one person who’s too lazy to walk around the corner to get a pizza can get [a drone to deliver it] instead, you won’t get lots of social acceptance.
“But in a rural environment, a drone wouldn’t annoy anyone. And if it’s an urgent delivery of something important, like medicine, it represents such a great opportunity that everyone would accept and support it,” Wackwitz adds. “In fact, I think rural and smaller markets are likely to be the first where social acceptance of drone deliveries occurs.” The global COVID-19 pandemic has also given us a glimpse of how UAS can serve humans in conditions that other humans can’t or are reluctant to venture into. In China and Europe, local authorities have employed low-flying drones to warn people off the streets, to scan the public with heat-sensing equipment looking for telltale fevers, and to deliver medicine to people in quarantine.
Going the Last Mile
Still, UAS are far from a mature technology. Currently, they can be operated beyond the line of sight of the remote pilot only with special permission, which typically is granted for jobs such as inspecting miles of high-voltage electric wires, surveying forests, and inspecting remote or hard-to-reach structures mounted on deep-sea drilling platforms.
In the future, full autonomy and beyond-line-of-sight operations are likely to become ordinary. And Draganfly’s intentions are to be in those markets as they mature.
“We will be in that market from the aspect of providing systems and equipment, like the autopilot systems. That’s really an incredibly important piece,” Chell says. “It’s not happening today. In my opinion, it’s still a solid 10 years away before we see that on a regular basis.
“But before then, I think we’ll see creation of a lot of spaces where drones will be allowed to deliver a package the last mile or two.
“I do believe that we’ll see that happening over the next couple of years,” Chell says. “And Draganfly will be a part of that.”