Can drones replace satellites?

Small drones are set to have a disrupting effect on a wide range of commercial activities

By Peter Feuilherade, Antoinette Price

The drone as we know it today began life in the 1800s and was originally used for target practice to train military personnel. Now, they are increasingly available for less than USD 1 000 in the consumer market, and their potential development in commercial and leisure applications is slowly replacing the public perception of their use as tools for military operations abroad.

 Drone
Microdrones md4-1000 cab used in agriculture (Photo: microdrones GmbH)

Commercial drones market expected to grow rapidly

Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unpiloted air systems (UAS), these aircraft without a human pilot aboard can be operated autonomously through on-board computers or by remote control, and powered by an internal combustion engine, batteries, solar photovoltaic (PV) systems or a combination of these.

The commercial drone market has benefited from huge investments in military drones and looks set to grow rapidly in the next 10 years. A forecast by Business Insider says the market for commercial/civilian drones will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 19% between 2015 and 2020, compared with 5% growth on the military side.

Advances in high density batteries and GPS systems allow drones to travel longer distances autonomously. At the same time acquisition costs are falling. According to accounting and consulting firm Deloitte, by the end of 2015, up to one million non-military drones at unit costs of USD 200 and more could be in use globally.

From agriculture to aerial photography

Major growth drivers for this market include increased demand from commercial applications, particularly precision agriculture, and significant technological advancements. The fastest growth areas for commercial drones include:

  • agriculture: researchers use drones to monitor crop growth, benefiting from faster data, at a higher resolution and far cheaper than satellite imagery.
  • disaster relief: drones are sent to scan dangerous sites and nuclear plants for signs of radiation, or survey infrastructure, such as power pylons. They also carry samples and deliver emergency medical supplies to isolated areas for aid organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières.
  • wildlife monitoring: counting endangered species for the World Wildlife Fund.
  • deliveries: more retailers worldwide are testing drone-based deliveries. Broad roll-out has slowed down as regulatory issues need to be resolved first.

Standards set to play a growing role

Much of the drone technology comes from commodity electronics developed for consumer gadgets like mobile phones. Drones also require GPS units, wireless transmitters, signal processors, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) gyroscopes and accelerometers. The flight controller also collects data from barometric pressure and airspeed sensors.

Currently there are relatively few safety standards that are specific to drones. However, IEC International Standards cover virtually all their components, such as batteries, MEMS and other sensors.

IEC Technical Committee (TC) 47: Semiconductor devices, and Subcommittee (SC) 47F: Micro electromechanical systems, are responsible for compiling a wide range of International Standards for semiconductor devices used in sensors and MEMS essential to the safe operation of drone flights. These include accelerometers, altimeters, magnetometers (compasses), gyroscopes and pressure sensors.

IEC TC 2: Rotating machinery, prepares International Standards covering specifications for rotating electrical machines and TC 91: Electronics assembly technology, is responsible for standards on electronic assembly technologies including components.

IEC SC 21A: Secondary cells and batteries containing alkaline or other non-acid electrolytes, compiles International Standards for batteries used in mobile applications, as well as for large-capacity lithium cells and batteries.

Ensuring safety and security first

The growing use of commercial drones of all sizes is raising issues pertaining to physical safety, the risk of injuring people or causing damage to property.

Challenges such as weather which can interfere with the GPS, flight path and motors, or hackers who could gain control remotely for criminal and terrorist purposes using malware, have spurred the rapid development of technologies to enhance in-flight safety, avoid collisions and improve communication between drones. There is still a way to go before the skies will be filled with commercial drones. While most people would agree that safety and security should come first, these aspects together with government regulations in some markets, are seen as holding back market growth.

Gallery
 Drone Microdrones md4-1000 cab used in agriculture (Photo: microdrones GmbH)
Drone Photo drones are getting cheaper, attracting customers (Photo: Yuneec International)
Drone Interested show visitor enquiring about photo drone