What drones did next: how flying robots will revolutionise work
CREDIT: BUENA VISTA IMAGES
Amazon’s drones might be grabbing the headlines, but right now aerial delivery of orders to your back garden is something of a flight of fancy – at least until legal restrictions are removed.
In the future carrying small cargo loads may well be big business for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). But right now there is already a worldwide market for flying robots valued at more than $127bn.
The figure comes from global consultancy PwC, which has set up a dedicated Drone Powered Solutions (DPS) unit in UAV-friendly Poland to study how the technology can – and is – being used.
“That figure comes from the value of work that can be replaced with drone-based labour,” says Adam Wisniewski, director of DPS. “It does not include the value of drones themselves.”
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The biggest opportunity for drones is in infrastructure – a market the PwC team values at $45bn. As the craft are fitted with sensors that can see far more than the human eye, they threaten to do away traditional ground-based surveyors who lay the groundwork for building projects and then monitor their progress.
“With a drone you get an unparalleled level of very practical data,” says Michal Mazur, partner at DPS. “A human surveyor is slow by comparison; they might be tired, they might be struggling in the rain, and a lot of what they produce is interpretative. Drones give an indisputable source of digital data, and one which is accurate to centimetres, rather than much larger ‘deviations’ humans give.”
A global boom in infrastructure spending means that companies are looking to speed up surveying as well as improve it, creating a demand for systems such as drones.
UAVs can also be used to monitor actual construction work. “Say you’re building a motorway, which takes years, and you want to know how work is going. It takes ages to survey it by traditional means and is expensive,” says Mazur. “Now imagine being able to fly a drone over it 40 times a week. You can see exactly how you are progressing, with very regular updates.”
DPS says it has seen instances of an eye in the sky improving safety in the construction industry. Mazur cites one example when a drone doing a survey spotted a welder not wearing protective gear and smoking next to a gas pipeline. “And the trench he was in was too deep and the sides too steep,” he adds.
“On one building project we saw accidents cut by 91pc,” says Wisniewski. “The drones were capturing people not wearing hard hats and other safety gear. Just the knowledge that one might be flying over and watching meant people started behaving.”
It is not just in construction that drones have found a niche. Aim-listed Strat Aero offers drone surveying and data analysis.
The company has landed international contracts checking wind turbines and surveying buildings.
“We recently surveyed the roof of an Essex car factory the size of 12 football pitches for damage that might need repair,” says Iain McClure, chief executive. “In the past that would have taken a team of three guys several days. We did it in five hours.”