How drones have evolved from hobbyist toys to big business
It doesn’t seem that long ago that the modern drone market could be seen as consisting of little more than cheap and cheerful toys. Or, at best, a rather more expensive and novel way for hobbyist photographers and videographers to add some more interesting angles to their work. However, now the drone industry is a juggernaut of big business, rapidly evolving into a convoy with the ever-evolving demand for commercial operations firmly behind the wheel. We explore the evolution of drones from gimmick to growth.
Where the lower-priced consumer market – whether that’s those £50 toys or even the cheaper professional (or ‘prosumer’) models – has seen its growth tailing off in the past year or so, the commercial market is positively booming and has now become the centrepiece of drone development. The figures may vary from one analyst to the next (as the criteria can differ) but it’s estimated that the current drone industry is worth in the region of $14 billion (about £11.5 billion). Meanwhile, a much-discussed 2016 PWC report claimed that commercial opportunities for the use of UAV technology amounted to an impressive $127 billion (£105 billion). Imagine what that figure would be now following a further three years of growth.
And it’s showing no signs of slowing down. Various experts and analysts predict that the industry will continue to grow by around 20-25% per year over the next five years, with the FAA itself stating that it expects the commercial sector to triple by 2023. While this is no guarantee of such growth, these figures could equally be considered conservative. Looking back a couple of years, one report suggested the industry could be worth $17 billion by 2024. A year later and another report put that figure at $43 billion, while another says we’ll hit $50 billion in 2050.
Although the figures may vary, the core fact remains: the commercial drone industry is going to continue to grow at a very healthy rate for at least the next few years, as businesses across all industries begin to appreciate the benefits of adopting drone technology. Whether it’s saving time, reducing risk to humans (and even saving lives) like the Elios 2, gathering vital data in a more accurate and efficient manner, taking great aerial shots or just making mundane tasks far easier, drones have come a long way – and in a comparatively short space of time…
The History of Drones
Of course, you can track the history of drones back a lot further than just a few years. Back in 1871, Frenchman Alphonse Penaud created a curved-wing craft powered by a rubber band (some 32 years before the Wright Brothers did their thing), and it was at the tail-end of the 19th century that Nikola Tesla first showcased radio controlled boats using his ‘telautomaton’ technology. As fun as radio-controlled boating may sound, that technology was also a precursor for guided torpedoes.
In 1922 the Russian-born American George de Bothezat created a large manned craft that more reflects the design of the current quadcopters, but that took flight for just a few minutes before development was scrapped. This was built for US military and it’s been no surprise to see that a lot of the evolution of drone technology in the following years came through its various military uses – as a fun fact Marilyn Monroe (or Norma Jean Mortenson as she was at the time) got her break after being photographed building target drones at the Radioplane factory in 1945.
As for the current drone industry, arguably you could track that back to 2010 when Parrot first showcased the A.R.Drone. Perhaps designed more for the gaming community (the AR supposedly standing for augmented reality), the introduction of a video camera to a small and agile flying craft – along with another downward-facing tracking camera tied into automated systems to maintain a smoother flight – drew a lot more widespread attention.
At the same time an emerging company by the name of DJI was tinkering with aerial technologies, going on to release the original iconic Phantom in 2013 before dominating the current commercial/professional/enterprise sector with the likes of the Inspire 2, Mavic 2 Pro, the M600 and its M200 series. But while DJI is by far the biggest name in the industry, there’s a growing depth to the number of companies getting involved in commercial aerial solutions, and an equally expanding breadth to the range of technologies and possible use cases for it.
The Drone Climate Today
Ever since the A.R.Drone took flight, the photography and videography sector has been at the forefront of modern drone technology. Although we mentioned it earlier as being a ‘hobbyist’ market, that has quickly expanded into a large professional arena (media and entertainment account for $8.8 billion of PWC’s estimation). We’re seeing accomplished pilots turning their skills to film sets and photo agencies and are producing some amazing visuals. We’re also seeing traditional photographers and videographers adding a drone to their camera bag, even if it’s something as small as a DJI Spark that can be stashed away in a backpack when they’re on the move.
Although that might still be the biggest single sector, the broader criteria of surveying and monitoring is the largest collective market for aerial professionals. It’s taken a while for the word to spread, but it’s not hard to find an argument for the large majority of land or property-owning businesses to be able to inspect their various assets from the air. Whether it’s looking for damage and repairs, heat loss, water drainage, to monitor movement and/or volumetrics on a construction site or just to get some great aerial photos to impress clients, would-be customers and the general public, using a drone is generally a much quicker, safer and more efficient option when compared to the alternatives.
It’s no surprise to see that in its report PWC puts infrastructure at the top of its list of commercial operations (eating up $45.2 billion of that $127 billion). Energy companies are at the top of the list of users, inspecting power lines, solar farms, oil rigs and more. In these cases any faults or loss of efficiency can cost millions in a very short space of time – so even spending £20,000 on a top-of-the-line professional aerial solution might seem like a small price to pay. On a wider scale this might include bridge inspections, rail line surveys, 3D mapping of buildings and even entire cities, and just about anything else that could benefit from a detailed and incredibly accurate eyes-on perspective.
Agriculture is also fast becoming a major player in the drone industry ($32.4 billion), where detailed surveys using differing sensors can be used to offer a wealth of data to help vastly improve crop yields and quality. Elsewhere the likes of transportation is another major sector ($13 billion), while security operations are on the rise ($10.5 billion) and that will also include counter-drone technologies brought to light due to recent events at Heathrow and Gatwick.
Also listed are the growing use cases involving insurance ($6.8 billion), including valuing properties and also doing inspections for claims, as well as making sure all pilots and their craft are suitably covered. Telecommunications ($6.3 billion) operates similarly to the energy sector, where routine surveys of its network coverage is key, while there have even been stories of BT using drones to stretch cables across difficult terrain. Rounding off the list is mining ($4.3 billion) where the need for safe surveying, often involving the need for lighting, BVLOS and a good obstacle avoidance system – or something like the Flyability Elios 2 we featured recently.
The Future of Drones
Certainly as the consumer market slows down, the commercial sector is where the future of the drone industry lies. Business use will continue to expand, although most likely at a slower and steadier pace over time as the market consolidates and manufacturers and legislation become increasing aligned over what, where and how the technology is applied. And there’s still some way to go to truly win over the mistrust and negative public perceptions fuelled by scaremongering stories (or BBC documentaries) from a sceptical media – despite most of those outlets having a drone unit of their own.
It’s likely we’ll see a transitional period as those big businesses that are currently out-sourcing their aerial work will seek to either bring those people in to operate as an in-house team, or maybe look to further train their existing employees. Either way, it’s something for existing commercial aerial operators to consider in order to ensure that their services remain suited to the shifting demands of the professional world. Obviously, technology will also evolve, with software becoming as important as the hardware (if it’s not already) with bettor sensors and smarter AI or machine learning that could lead to preventative maintenance and automated service solutions – ultimately becoming integrated into the wider Internet of Things (IOT).
There are other existing shifts that are likely to continue, with an increasingly global production line. India only legalised drones in 2018 and has the potential to become a major player in the coming years. Israel is another example of a country offering a hotbed of emerging UAV companies, while Africa continues to push UAV technology into many of its most remote regions. And while you can still do great things with a £500 drone, there is a move towards more expensive craft, including custom builds or using modified payloads. As mentioned, if a flaw in your business can cost millions, a few thousand pounds on a finely-tuned UAV system to prevent it would be a drop in the ocean.
“If a flaw in your business can cost millions, a few thousand pounds on a finely-tuned UAV system to prevent it would be a drop in the ocean”
What will be interesting to see is how the manufacturers adapt to this growing commercial community. Will we see a growing fleet of aircraft designed to meet those specific needs, or will modular systems that provide more flexibility to the user become the norm? Equally how this ever-growing number of drones taking to the skies will be managed from a logistical viewpoint is a key topic. Will we see dedicated airspace? And what kind of practical standards or legislation will be required to operate large fleets over long distances? Find out more information on the rules and what will be changing in the year ahead on our blog, Are the Drone Laws Changing?
These are just a few of the things that the commercial industry has to face in 2019 and beyond, but there’s little doubting that is has a lot of growing up to in the coming years. Quite where we’ll be in 2024 and just how much the drone industry really is worth at that point remains to be seen – and it should be an exciting and hopefully prosperous journey for all commercial operators until we find out.
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