Last month the Federal Aviation Administration made a decision that marks a significant step for the commercial drone industry, permitting six movie and television production companies the right to use drones. This is the first time the FAA has allowed this type of industry exemption from the rules that prohibit drones from flying in U.S. airspace. Despite Congress’ request that it develop standards in support of safe drone use by September 2015, and despite corporate America’s campaigning for drone operations, the FAA has been dragging its feet.
Thanks to Hollywood and the broader entertainment industry, a door has been opened for commercial drones. Already roughly 40 companies have filed similar applications, and others are doing their drone research outside of the U.S. Google, Amazon, and DHL are testing delivery-drones in Australia, Canada, and Germany, respectively. Cynics predict that the U.S. is still years away from this kind of technology offering, but they need to realize that the drone revolution is already here.
What other industries are best poised to reap the benefits of drone technology?
For years, energy companies have been lobbying for commercial drone use to monitor power lines and pipelines. Surveying assets with small manned aircraft is tedious and dangerous. The areas are remote, and the aircraft must fly low. Drones flying on autopilot with gimbaled cameras and advanced image processing are a perfect solution. In June 2014, BP became the first company in the U.S. to receive limited approval for the use of drones over land to monitor video of its Prudhoe Bay oil fields in Alaska. Since then, other energy companies have pushed for the same rights, to no avail. With footage from drones, oil and gas companies can quickly detect pipeline leaks and inspect offshore platforms or other dangerous areas without endangering employees or the environment, and ultimately minimizing cost and liability.
Mining takes place in remote locations and requires tremendous expense in exploring and measuring productivity and operations. Replacing manual surveying and data collection by helicopter with aerial drones will dramatically reshape the way mining companies explore, develop, and survey ore deposits. Miners will be able to determine with far greater accuracy operational data such as how far along a dig is, or how much material has been extracted from the ground. Traditionally, these observations have cost thousands of dollars an hour. A drone can gather them at a fraction of the cost and without the high risks to pilots.
Infrastructure and Transportation
Drones can provide an efficient, cheaper, and safer way to inspect aging infrastructure across the nation, including bridges, roads, buildings, railways, harbors, and ports. A small drone can quickly fly up to, around, and underneath a structure to inspect it for wear and tear. Has a bridge surface dipped, threatening collapse? Is the levee about to be breached? Such questions can necessitate continuous monitoring, which can cost millions of dollars a year. Also, government agencies and businesses can use drone video output to better understand, monitor, and optimize road and train track conditions, traffic patterns, mapping, and more. Municipal planning managers, civil engineers, transportation specialists, and others can not only monitor but also analyze structures and systems in real time, driving down costs while increasing efficiency and overall public safety.
Agriculture is another big industry ripe for drones. Most farmland is in less-populated areas and far from dense air traffic, making the industry a low-risk candidate for drone use. With unmanned aerial surveillance, farmers will be able to more efficiently determine seeding and harvesting periods or infestation or other crop damage. Food suppliers are eager to embrace the technology for numerous other purposes, such as monitoring irrigation and water supplies, livestock, and crops while saving time, money, and manpower.
Drone use in these industries is just the beginning. There are also cross-industry applications such as physical security where drones can play a major role. Relying on stationary security cameras may soon be a thing of the past where drone-based cameras can rove large facilities like power plants, distribution centers, and college campuses. A drone’s mobility and aerial perspective can allow more dynamic and accurate video of events. With the right video analytics and computer vision solutions, more precise and useful data can be extracted. Drones can help the public sector as well. Public safety, disaster relief and recovery, and search and rescue are all areas primed for the use of drones.
Drones for commercial use are here to stay. Businesses and individuals are increasingly embracing and deploying them for the benefits they can bring to everyday life. Now, it’s up to our government to ensure that the U.S. doesn’t lag behind the rest of the world in capitalizing on them.