The drone economy: much more than pizza deliveries

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More and more sectors are starting to use drones, thanks to the highly precise and low cost flights this technology makes possible. Today, drones are taking on all kinds of endeavors, from fighting fires to transporting people.

Amazon took the world by surprise by being the first organization to use a drone to deliver a package to a paying customer in the United Kingdom in December, 2016. The customer received their package exactly 13 minutes after placing the order. However, this delivery was made through a pilot project and within a test environment. The e-commerce giant still must rely on delivery companies to fulfill their orders, but the truth is that these aircraft have myriad applications. Can you imagine getting around aboard one? Do you believe they could save lives?  

Drones are remote-controlled, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Although until relatively recently drones have been primarily recognized as military instruments, their use outside the battle field has expanded greatly in recent years. “This boom has stemmed from the development of the underlying technology, which has improved communications, calculation and flight capabilities,” the Secretary-General of the drone business Droniberia, José Antonio Álvarez, explains. “The sky is going to be full of drones,” he says.

Drones for Every Sector

As a result, although still an emerging industry, drones are finding their way into more and more fields, like the audiovisual world, infrastructure management, precision farming, the environment, security and transport. UAVs can also deliver pizzas, but this is far from the most disruptive application of this technology.

One of the latest revolutions in this regard has been forged by the German company Volocopter, through the development of the first drone model designed to serve as a taxi in Dubai (United Arab Emirates). According to the company, this UAV can complete 30 minute trips and reach speeds of up to 100 kilometers per hour. Currently, the design is an initial prototype, with an objective to go live within five years.

This is not the only project to combine drones and transport. Uber, for example, is collaborating with Aurora Flight Sciences on the creation of a flying taxi which plans to take to the skies by 2020. Larry Page, one of Google´s co-founders, is another believer: he joined forces with the company Kitty Hawkr to design Flyer, another flying vehicle proposal.  

While interesting, it seems hard to imagine the launch of these proposals at scale. But there are sectors where drones are starting to become commonplace. One example is environmental management, where these devices are being used more and more for tasks like reforestation. The British company BioCarbon Engineering is one of the pioneers in this realm. According to the company´s data, their drones are capable of dispersing 36,000 seeds per day, the equivalent of reforesting 29,000 hectares per year.

In fact, this company served as a reference for the founder of the Spanish start-up Greenflight, Joan Esteban Altabella, who won the local 2017 Santander Yuzz entrepreneurial program at the Jaume I de Castellón University (Spain). Greenflight is focused on the reforestation of areas affected by fire and detecting degraded areas. “We use three types of drones: one for environmental surveillance and monitoring, another for reforestation tasks, and a third which disperses capsules of fertilizer,” Altabella explains. “The drones boost efficiency and safety. They also facilitate tasks which until now have been very complex,” he adds. “For example, through the drone´s bird´s eye view you can quickly obtain a photograph of where you need to act. And it also reduces intervention costs.”   

The industrial sector is also leveraging the advantages of these unmanned aerial vehicles. “They are used for industrial inspections, photovoltaic field control, tracking construction progress, detecting leaks through thermography and locating potentially contaminated areas,” explains the director of technology at Zima Robotics and Drone Spain, Toni Lonjedo, who says his company has already signed contracts with professional collectives like fire departments.

Lonjedo higlights that another area where drones are starting to make their mark is in driverless  vessels used to control the waters and improve port security. In Lonjedo´s view, a drone is an unmanned vehicle, whether it travels by sea, land or air. Zima Robotics, a company focused on industrial robotics, data processing and industrial technological development, is currently collaborating with Inforport on the use of this kind of waterborne drone in the port in Valencia (Spain). “We are using these drones to collect environmental samples in order to control the water with sensors which transmit information in real time,” Lonjedo explains.

Obstacles to a Sky Full of Drones

But drones cannot be used in just any manner, and each country has their own regulations. Most rules are related to ensuring the safety of third parties, limiting operation to daylight hours and prohibiting flying over large crowds.  “In Spain, it would be necessary to relax regulations and clarify situations like, for example, when drones will be allowed to fly over large crowds of people. On the other hand, we should be more restrictive with who is permitted to operate drones without a license,” according to Droniberia´s spokesperson, José Antonio Álvarez.

But the development of this industry requires something more than appropriate regulation – in Europe, legislators are working on a common set of regulations. It is also critical for governments and businesses to work together. “It is necessary for the administration to promote collaborative initiatives between universities and companies to boost research and the technology,” says Lonjedo.  

Overcoming this kind of obstacle will be vital to ensuring that drones achieve mass adoption, though we must not forget one crucial factor: social acceptance.  “We still do not trust our cars to drive themselves autonomously, nor planes without pilots. The same is true with drones, and though their total integration into our daily routines is a futuristic thought, every day it comes closer to becoming a reality,” Lonjedo concludes.

By Alba Casilda

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