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Worker drones

Tayla Ansell looks at recent applications of drone technology

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), continue to make the news for all the wrong reasons. Back in April a British Airways plane approaching Heathrow Airport was thought, wrongly as it turns out, to have been hit by a drone. In the same month, drones were banned from fling over a large part of London during the visit of US President Barack Obama.

Despite security concerns, calls for tighter rules on drone use and regulatory uncertainty, the drone industry continues to flourish.

Juniper Research expects annual revenues from commercial drone sales to reach $481 million this year, a rise of 84% on last year’s figure of $261 million1. Growth will be strongest in the agricultural sector, which is predicted to account for 48% of all commercial drone sales this year.

In the Queen’s Speech in May the government announced it will introduce a Modern Transport Bill to ensure the UK is at the forefront of technology for new forms of transport, including drones.

Drones are already used for a wide range of applications (some of which we explored in issue 124) and with advancements in technology, such as more compact sensors and cameras, they will continue to be adopted across many industries. Here are a few recent examples:

Crowd friendly technology

aerotain Drones sport resize

Drones are great for capturing footage at events but their propellers make them a hazard to people. AEROTAIN has now developed a crowd-friendly drone, Skye, that combines aerial imagery, advertising and entertainment. Lifted by helium and powered by electrical motors, Skye can perform a variety of movements, including rolling like a football; can be customised to depict a product or brand name; and can carry broadcasting equipment to take aerial footage. Unique safety features mean it is safe to touch in flight so can fly over crowded places and closely approach people, offering brands a unique opportunity to interact with audiences.

Safer inspections

Drones are widely used for aerial inspections of everything from oil rigs to buildings and bridges. Justin Pringle, CTO at Drone Ops, which specialises in the commercial application of Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (SUAS), says drones are often the safest option as they remove humans from hazardous situations. “We have developed a drone that can detect air pollution using sensors and a drone that can locate land mines from a safe distance,” he said. In another example, a drone was used to check radiation levels at Chernobyl.

Animal observation and conservation

International Animal Rescue aerial drone shot

Animal charity International Animal Rescue rescues, rehabilitates and releases orangutans in Borneo, placing small radio transmitters under their skin so that they can be located in the wild. It recently trialled the use of drones as a cheaper and more efficient alternative to human trackers. CEO Alan Knight said: “Our idea is to use a drone to search for orangutans at night when they climb to the tops of trees to make nests. The interference is less and the manpower is vastly reduced. Our software picks up transmissions and produces a heat map showing hotspots where the transmissions are strongest. The trackers can then enter the forest and go to within 10m of where the orangutan is sleeping, saving huge amounts of search time.”

Amphibious drone

Addressing potential military applications, researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, US have developed a submersible UAV that can be launched from a fixed position underwater. The Corrosion Resistant Aerial Covert Unmanned Nautical System (CRACUNS) can remain underwater for months without corroding and can withstand the pressure of being submerged at a depth of several hundred feet.

The increasing popularity of drones will no doubt continue to spark safety and privacy fears. However, it is important to acknowledge the benefits they bring to a variety of applications, including greater efficiency, lower costs and safer data collection.

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