Commercial use of drones is growing ©123RF
Commercial use of drones is growing ©123RF

Tech briefing: drones

Don’t look up, but there could be one above you right now… From surveillance to delivery, the skies are becoming increasingly crowded, but there’s great potential for supply chains

A few years ago, you may have been forgiven for thinking that drones were just the stuff of science fiction – or something Jack Bauer had to contend with. But today there is no excuse – they are virtually ubiquitous.

Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles, piloted remotely, or automated. They have enabled a number of capabilities that were previously unmanageable by man, and can deliver technology or transport items by air to difficult-to-reach or dangerous locations without risk to human life. Their manoeuvrability and precision has also enhanced their many uses.

They come in a variety of sizes – from small surveillance drones to military spy planes and armed drones used by the US air force that carry a range of technology, from infra-red imaging, television cameras and laser-guided missiles.

How they work

We’ve had our eye on drones since the early 1900s, when there were plans during World War I to develop unmanned biplanes powered by catapult to drop torpedoes. By 2000 the CIA was using drones for reconnaissance.

Drones tend to have at least four propellers, and are operated by a land-based pilot. They are made of light but strong material which keeps weight down and improves manoeuvrability, and enables cruising at high altitudes for some.

They are usually equipped with GPRS satellite systems, an onboard gyroscope, collision avoidance vision sensors, a video camera and a wireless transmitter.

The most complex drone operating equipment involves a cockpit-like set up, with screens and control panels, and the operator has a first-person view. A camera mounted on the drone broadcasts a live video via radio signal, showing the view for the pilot. Others are operated via a smartphone or simple remote controller.

The instructions are picked up by satellite and delivered to the drone. As well as monitoring progress on a screen, images can also be shared via the internet.

Current uses

Drones are now used in a range of positive roles. In many cases they have replaced manned flights, from examining tall buildings in need of repair and checking hurricane damage in cut-off locations, to delivering aid supplies across inaccessible terrain. A new use is unleashed almost every week: app-powered ice cream delivery to the beach? Check. Cattle herding drone to control cows? Check.

Commercially, the drone effect is growing, with packages being delivered, warehouses being protected by drones, and sites being surveyed for all sorts of purposes – using ever more sophisticated sensors. As in many other areas, Amazon is a pioneer here. It has patented an “airborne fulfillment centre” – a warehouse that doubles as a drone airport, suspended from a blimp. In December 2016, the company made its first retail delivery via drone, a 13-minute journey in Cambridge, as part of Amazon Air Prime.

Drones are part of plans to transform Africa’s economy (Deloitte estimates they could bring $6trn in GDP from 2020 to 2030), with medical and commercial drone ports planned in western Rwanda.

From keeping an eye on local stock to surveying crops on the other side of the world, drones connect people to supply chains and enhance monitoring. Owning drones for business, or taking advantage of new services, such as those offering super-precise weather prediction, can enhance supply chains and manage risk.

Where next?

• Drones that help anglers spot fish and drop bait.

• One company is trialling drones with RFID scanners to check inventory in warehouses.

• Last year Japanese manufacturer ProDrone launched a large-scale drone with grabbing arms to grasp and carry cargo, cut cables, and retrieve hazardous materials.

• But, as drones fill the skies, watch out for new legislation on safety and privacy.

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