7 ways drones are revolutionizing industries
Drones are uncrewed aerial vehicles initially created to carry out military missions that were too risky for human soldiers or as targets for training purposes. They can be traced back to the 19th century (and used balloons) as a military innovation.
For a long time, they were much larger, heavier, and costlier than they are now. In fact, they still looked pretty much like planes but smaller and remote-controlled.
As technology advances, drones have become more compact and affordable. In 2006, the Federal Aviation Administration granted the first civil unmanned aerial vehicle airworthiness certificate. But drones would not become popular with hobbyists and businesses until the early 2010s when many new drone applications started to appear.
As of 2023, there are 855,860 registered drones in the United States, of which 37 percent are used for commercial activities.
Drones have revolutionized several industries by providing safety upgrades, cost savings, and improved data collection.
These are some of the industries that are currently benefiting from the use of drones.
Drones used in agriculture are often equipped with multispectral cameras and sensors that can provide high-resolution digital images and assist in monitoring crop growth and crop health from above.
Land imaging allows farmers to identify soil changes, irrigation issues, pest infestations, or other signs of disease in plants before they become a severe problem.
These digital images can also be used to create 3D maps of fields and crops. These maps can then be used to compare crop growth in different seasons or years, calculate how much land is available for crops or livestock, determine soil moisture and nutrient levels in the soil, etc. All this data lets farmers make faster, more informed decisions.
Drones in agriculture can also capture images of livestock from the air so that farmers know where their animals are and how they are doing at all times.
If equipped with seed dispensers, drones can carry seeds to areas that are hard to access by traditional farming equipment and spread them accurately, replanting areas after fires or other events and even enabling more cultivable land under challenging terrains.
And, if equipped with tanks, drones can spray pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, or even water to facilitate irrigation, pest control, and crop maintenance in general.
Similar to drone use in agriculture, in construction, drones can be used to capture aerial images, which can be turned into 3D topographical maps of terrains and even 3D models that provide a detailed view of the construction site.
Civil engineers can then use this data to better plan and design the construction project.
During construction, drones can track equipment, take pictures to record progress and bring tools or materials to workers so that they don’t have to stop working and carry those heavy objects by themselves.
Once the structure is built, drones can inspect it with a visual and sensory approach to check stability and detect damage or defects without risking human workers.
This way, drones used in construction can facilitate some tasks and prevent occupational injuries.
Many different types of inspection can be aided or improved by using drones. Inspection is necessary for many industries, such as construction and infrastructure, manufacturing, mechanical and electrical inspection, etc.
Drones in an inspection are mainly used to ensure human inspectors are safely away from dangerous places. For example, in the telecommunications sector, drones can be sent to inspect a cell phone tower so that a human inspector does not have to climb a high tower (they are often about 50-200 feet tall, roughly 15 to 70 meters).
But not all drones used in an inspection are based on visuals only. In the energy industry, for example, drones can inspect pipelines for oil and gas using multispectral cameras and infrared sensors to detect leaks, corrosion, or other damage that is perhaps not even visible to the naked eye.
Drone use in delivery is already a reality. In 2019, after several years of trials, Alphabet’s subsidiary Wing was FAA-approved to operate in the U.S. as a drone delivery company. By 2021, Wing’s drone delivery service had reached 100,000 deliveries. The service is active only in specific areas in the U.S., Australia, Ireland, and Finland.
Drones are used in delivery to mainly carry food and beverages, but we’ve also seen Google’s drone delivery service drop library books to kids in Virginia and Zipline’s drones take medical supplies to remote clinics in Rwanda.
If delivery drones haven’t utterly replaced Uber Eats by now, it is mainly because the current technology presents significant limitations, especially in the amount of weight that these drones can carry (6 lbs or 3 kg), the amount of distance they can travel before running out of battery (about 2 miles or 3 km), finding safe landing areas for packages, their vulnerability to weather conditions, and some safety issues (in 2022 a delivery drone in Logan, Australia hit an electricity line and left thousands without power).
Drones in entertainment are mainly used for taking aerial images and videos of live events, such as music festivals and sports matches.
Drones are also used to capture aerial footage for film and TV production. Before drones were applied to the entertainment industry, film and TV producers relied on helicopters or cranes to take these shots, which are more expensive and time-consuming than drones.
Moreover, drones can fly in tighter spaces and at lower altitudes than helicopters, allowing for a wider variety of dynamic shots.
Mapping and surveying
Drones in mapping and surveying help collect accurate data about terrain, buildings, and infrastructure, which can be used to create 2D and 3D maps, digital elevation models, and other geospatial products.
These geospatial products can enhance operations in urban planning, construction, agriculture, mining, and environmental management, among others.
Drones in mapping and surveying can cover large areas, even hard-to-reach areas, in less time, surpassing the abilities of ground-based survey teams.
Search and rescue
Drones in search and rescue operations can fly at low altitudes and provide detailed aerial views of large areas where people can get lost or trapped. If there is poor visibility, they can search for victims using thermal sensors or thermal cameras to detect their body heat within a mass of trees, snow, collapsed buildings, etc.
Drones can cover some search areas much faster than human rescue teams, which may have to deal with traffic congestion and rugged terrains to access the search area.
Once they find survivors, rescue drones can drop supplies or communication devices on them and send their location to human rescue teams.
The future of drones in these industries is promising, as drones have already proven to be a valuable asset that makes tasks easier, faster, and safer in many cases. What’s left is surmounting the technical and safety limitations that currently render drones unsuitable for other applications, such as the ones related to the lithium batteries that power modern drones.
In the future, drones could get bigger again to become stronger and carry heavier loads, and they could get smarter and fully autonomous with artificial intelligence.
We'll have to wait and see.