Helpers of the Skies

Author: Michael Vogel

Jul 19, 2023 Innovation

We see people flying drones privately all the time. But in their slipstream, drones for commercial application are becoming increasingly important. An overview.

The market for drones in civilian use is growing rapidly. While private use was a key driver in many countries in the past, commercial drone applications are more recently becoming increasingly important. Take Germany, for instance: According to a 2021 study by the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Association, a total of more than 400,000 drones are in circulation, 96 percent of which are privately owned. The number of drones in commercial use is significantly lower, at 45,000, so the study. But since 2019, their number has increased by 138 percent, more than doubling, while the number of privately used drones has declined.
Information on the global market varies greatly depending on the market research company in question. What all the studies have in common is that sales in 2022 are expected to be in the single- to double-digit billions and that annual growth of well over 20 percent is anticipated until 2030.
The predicted sharp increase in the use of drones is due to the wide range of potential applications, only a fraction of which have been used by industry and public authorities to date. Whether in agriculture, the film industry, surveying, monitoring, maintenance, expert opinions, or logistics and transport – commercial drones offer advantages, as the following examples illustrate.
Accident reports
In the case of complex traffic accidents, the police or courts often require expert reports, which DEKRA, for instance, also compiles. “We have around 400 trained accident analysts stationed at our branches. Their equipment also includes drones,” says Peter Rücker, Head of Accident Analysis and Accident Research at DEKRA Automobil GmbH. The use of drones for this purpose has already been a practice for almost ten years. “Depending on the complexity of the accident and the nature of the accident site, our colleagues fly a drone at a height of around ten meters to take pictures vertically downwards.” In the past, there was only the option of shooting images with a camera on a high pole or from an elevated position. “That still happens today when it’s stormy or dark, for example, because then a drone’s application options are severely limited,” Rücker says, “but often drone images are already enough.” That saves time. Thanks to drones, analysts “more quickly get a differentiated overview” of the accident scene. In addition, the images are the basis for creating a digital 3D model of the accident site.
Agriculture, mining, and geology
Thanks to drones, more and more farms are able to avoid time-consuming inspection trips, which often do not provide a good overview anyway. Drones can be used to check where fertilizer, water, or crop protection products are needed. According to the German Federal Agricultural Information Center, for example, capsules containing eggs of an ichneumon wasp can be dropped over corn fields. These wasps prey on a dreaded corn pest. Thanks to the drone, the application takes four minutes per hectare – without a drone, it would take five times as long. Drones also help save fawns. The young animals lie on the ground in grain fields to hide when they hear a roaring combine harvester. However, if a drone searches the field in advance, the fawns can be saved.
Drones can also monitor rocky slopes. In the Alps, mudslides and rock slides happen all the time. Georeferenced drones – whose location in relation to the terrain formation while taking measurements is always precisely known – can record deformations of a slope much faster than would be possible with conventional surveying technology from the ground. This makes it possible to more reliably identify neuralgic points that require intensive monitoring. Drones also play an increasing role in the assessment of soil properties or deposits.
Civil protection and safety
Drones help the police, fire departments, technical and humanitarian relief organizations, and rescue services to get a quick overview of dangerous situations. They can also be used to search for missing persons close to the ground and to identify embers or hazardous substances in firefighting operations. Not everything that is technically possible is already being implemented, but the relevant organizations and authorities are conducting realistic practical tests.
Maintenance and monitoring
A single industrial plant has hundreds of meters to tens of kilometers of exposed piping. Operators must regularly inspect many of these pipelines for damage, which is where drones provide support. Buildings, solar farms, wind turbines, or high-voltage lines can be inspected in the same way. In addition to the question of recognizable damage, relevant issues include the degree of contamination of solar modules or, in mining, the measurement of stockpiles or the determination of production volumes. Operators take advantage of the fact that drones can be equipped not only with optical cameras, but also with infrared cameras, gas sensors, or laser scanners. Another advantage is that operations often do not have to be shut down for inspections “from above” because the personnel do not have to be in safety-critical areas.
Film and photo
Many people have certainly already experienced drones as part of professional photographers’ repertoire for unusual perspectives at festivities such as weddings. Another large field for drone use is documentary and feature films. Especially when shooting feature films, a drone can film perspectives where the camera has to move along with the scene at a much lower financial cost than a classic solution. A helicopter flight, for example, is significantly more expensive, quickly adding up to several thousand euros for a few hours of operation. One of the battle scenes in the Marvel film “Infinity War” was filmed in Edinburgh. The crew used drones to film the pyrotechnics from a safe distance. The opening scene in the James Bond film “Skyfall”, a motorcycle chase over the rooftops of Istanbul, was also filmed with drones.
Logistics and traffic
In logistics, drones are of interest for taking inventory of extensive high-bay warehouses, for example. They can detect unused or damaged storage spaces or scan barcodes to quickly and conveniently identify incorrectly sorted goods. Freight and passenger transport will also benefit from drones in the future. Here, however, the industry is in its infancy. It has been experimenting with cargo drones for more than a decade. Amazon, Alphabet subsidiary Wing, and Walmart subsidiary Droneup all deliver goods by air. By its own account, Amazon has now done so successfully a hundred times, Droneup 110,000 times, and Wing 330,000 times. The US company Zipline already claims 600,000 deliveries, mostly in Africa and Australia. However, concepts for airspace surveillance at the low altitudes at which such drones travel are still in their early stages and limit the use of cargo drones, especially in urban environments.
Passenger drones, which are not yet as technologically advanced as cargo drones, would also depend on this airspace surveillance. According to the Vertical Flight Society, there are about 350 companies worldwide that want to develop such passenger drones; a wave of consolidation is sweeping the fledgling industry. Announcements for the start of regular flight operations have been numerous, but reality always caught up with them – a lot of venture capital alone does not create a market. Yet this will certainly happen in the next few years. A pilot will always have to be on board at first, though, which does not make it any easier to operate such passenger drones economically. After all, they only have a few seats.