Commercial Drones: An Emerging Market

Commercial Drones: An Emerging Market

By Paula Hock

When the average person thinks about a drone, they typically come up with one of two examples: a military weapon or an amateur videographer at their cousin’s wedding. In the last few years, however, drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles- UAVs) have seen an emergence in a new use category: the commercial/industrial sector.

Numbers Breakdown

In general, that average person is right about drones: the two biggest uses for UAVs currently are recreation and defense. Private/consumer uses have the largest share of UAVs, with approximately 2 million recreational drones having been sold last year. Conversely, the vast majority of spending (90%) on drones is accounted for by the second category- military drones.

A third category of drone sales has begun to emerge beyond these: last year ~110k drones were sold for commercial use, and that figure is expected to rise to 174,000 this year. A variety of factors have led to this emergence: a competitive market fueling technological advancement, delayed regulation from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) giving rise to loopholes, and growing industry influencers.

On the whole, the Commercial Drone Market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 27% until 2021. This growth is especially driven by continually expanding and newly developing uses for unmanned aircraft.

Use Cases

During the explosive growth of the commercial drones market in the last 5-10 years, uses have appeared in a wide variety of industries including agriculture, mining, security, infrastructure inspection, and more.

Agriculture, seen by many as an industry resistant to technological development, stands to benefit from the use of drones in a variety of capacities. Recent developments in distance-measuring sensors have enabled drones to adjust altitude as necessary for crop spraying. Soil and field analysis can be accomplished via drone for both soil data and 3D mapping. Several companies have even developed drone-based planting systems that can decrease planting costs by 85%.

Across the mining industry, worker safety has long been a priority. In utilizing accurate spatial data from drones, surveyors can reduce risk by minimizing time spent on certain sites. Drones can also be helpful in things like short- and long-term planning, drilling and blasting, geology, hydrology, and more. For instance, constant monitoring of mining sites can aid in erosion detection and draining/water management.

In the government sector, infrastructure inspection and management have also welcomed incoming technology developments utilizing drones. Prior to using UAVs, inspection was limited to manual, “from the ground” methods. Any use of helicopters or other aerial vehicles has been too expensive for consistent, feasible use. With drones, both planning stages and lifetime assessment can effectively monitor progress and anticipate issues with infrastructure projects.

A Lagging US Market

Panelists at the National Business Aviation Association’s convention in Orlando told attendees that the U.S. is falling behind in unmanned aircraft systems. Other countries like Israel, Canada, and Australia, have moved faster in development and introduction of unmanned aircraft with fewer restrictions on their use. Japan has been using UAV systems for crop dusting and precision agriculture for the past two decades.

Brad Hayden, the president and CEO of Robotic Skies, said that business opportunities will open up once regulation exceptions are granted by the FAA (currently, there are 91 such applications). Panelists went on to say that unmanned aircraft will soon be used for a variety of purposes and that the U.S. market needs to be ready to meet demand in the coming years.

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