The battle for business advantage is moving to the skies as retailers, the construction industry, security and sports firms look to commercial drones to out perform competition in 2016.
Spearheaded by Amazon, the online retailer whose videos of drone deliveries were dismissed as pie in the sky as recently as two years ago, companies large and small are discovering the advantages of moving their operations into the air.
The Internet of Flying Things
So what’s driving interest in commercial UAVs and who is set to benefit from developments such as the Internet of Flying Things?
There are considerable business opportunities not only in the air, as UK company, Altitude Angel
Launched last month, with £200k seed funding, Altitude Angel is a traffic management system that can be implemented just as drones are starting to become more popular, helping to ensure that their usage is controlled and remains safe.
It also offers businesses a solution to the key challenge facing consumer and commercial drone operators: managing backend systems and ensuring safe operation in the air.
This means taking into account flight restrictions and hazards as well as evolving local law, such as no-fly zones. The system aggregates data such as Notice to Airmen (NoTAM) alerts, which warn pilots of hazards in their area or on their route.
As is becoming a mantra, data is key and Altitude Angel, which bills itself the world's first back-end drone services company, has introduced a free Drone Safety Map for users to unlock weather, regulations and "clickable hazards" with detailed descriptions. In return users contribute their own data.
As, CEO Richard Parker explained recently
“If you imagine a system which knows the location of all drones, that has two-way communication, then you’re close to imagining what Altitude Angel can do for drone safety and commercial use.
“Our customers send us their UAS telemetry data in real-time, and if we detect a scenario that needs corrective action to avoid a collision, we'll send targeted waypoint or turn rate instructions directly to the UAS. Our high-end cloud platform accurately performs collision avoidance and conflict resolution (including predictive analysis) before sending the most appropriate instructions to all UAS involved in a conflict situation.”
So, if necessary, the system will also actually take control of compatible drones directly to minimise risk to people and property.
The big players, such as Microsoft Research are also, naturally, developing the Internet for flying objects, working on on how to amass and analyse wind-speed data already collected by US planes in near real-time. By pulling this together and mashing it with existing sources of US weather data, the researchers claim they can get a lead on very local weather conditions with greater accuracy than supercomputer models can predict ahead of time.
Intel too is developing in this space. Earlier this week, the company announced its acquisition of the German based, Ascending Technologies
, a drone company specialising in auto-pilot software and algorithms. The duo have already partnered to combine Ascending Technologies’ sense-and-avoid algorithms with Intel’s RealSense real-time depth-sensing capability.
These are solutions to a problem that just months ago many people didn’t know would ever exist, and a proposition that is likely to become attractive to developers, commercial operators and manufacturers alike as drones become an entrenched part of our future.
To this end, analysts are predicting a number of important trends for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the coming year including: a significant increase in drone use in rural areas; the tech is tipped to transform emergency response procedures; the dawn of European “drone motorways” and continued battles over regulation.
Drones are already being used commercially on a scale that many people are likely to be unaware of.
Police forces in the south of the UK, including Devon and Cornwall, have been trialling the use of drones to monitor traffic accidents, search for missing people and to record crime scenes.
In farming, UAV’s have long been put to work, providing accurate, up-to-date information on what is being grown where and monitoring for signs of pests of disease.
There are plenty of other applications, from border patrol to locating earthquake victims and, as regulators mull over safety, we can expect more trials, particularly in sparsely populated rural areas.
Outside Europe, drones are also already being used to transform emergency response procedures. Drones were used to deliver medical equipment to remote areas in both Australia and the US recently and this their use is likely to become common as improvements in battery life and Sense-and-Avoid capabilities progress.
And European regulators are already fast at work creating ‘Drone Motorways’ for the nascent technology. In fact, European progress in this area (compared to what many view as the somewhat conservative attitude of the US’s Federal Aviation Authority (FAA)) has even led to Amazon establishing a research centre in the UK
, to take advantage of the more progressive stance.
The elephant in the room
But there’s one thing that drone enthusiasts aren’t so enamoured about, and that’s regulation - unless, of course, they’re lawyers.
Regulators were caught massively on the back foot by the speed at which UAV’s have caught on. The FAA’s 2010 prediction of 15,000 drones by 2020 has been blown out of the water; the figure doesn’t even cover US sales in an average month.
Bottlenecks in the regulatory process are unlikely to be dealt with swiftly within the next 12 months but a focus on the increased safety offered by the Internet of Flying Things may well aid the process.
As is becoming the norm, rapidly improving technology and lower costs have led to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) hovering on the edge of the mainstream. But now it's the design of systems to safe keep, regulate and support them that must try to keep apace, and that's going to be a big theme throughout 2016.