Get up to speed on the latest drone technologies.
Leave it to the Kiwis to pioneer pizza delivery by drones. These are the same adventure seekers who turned traditional Vanuatu vine jumping into bungee jumping. New Zealand also gave us the Zorb, that giant clear plastic ball that rolls around with you inside of it while you try not to hurl.
So it’s no shocker that the first drone pizza delivery happened in Auckland last summer, which I’m fairly sure is also the first pizza delivery ever attended by a nation’s transport minister. I wonder if the drone accepted a tip at the door?
Pepperoni and cheese aren’t the only things flying around in the latest wave of drone innovation. Here’s a primer on one of today’s hottest technologies.
Drones making history
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are aircraft with no crew or passengers onboard. They can be fully automated or operated remotely, and the first prototypes were developed by the U.S. army during World War I. The term ‘drone’ comes from the Queen Bee military UAV, pictured below in 1935 with a chap named Winston Churchill.
Since the Vietnam War, drones have been used mainly for military purposes like reconnaissance missions or as combat decoys. In the past few years, two things have taken drone technology to another level: mobile tech and data.
Blame (or thank) Kim Kardashian. Her relentless selfie-taking has fuelled a collective quest to snap cooler, crazier smartphone pics of ourselves. It didn’t take long for someone to wonder, ‘Why not take overhead shots with lightweight drones?’
Gartner researchers even mention this in a recent report, describing personal drones as “an affordable extension of consumers’ smartphones for taking photographs and selfies.” These personal drones, Gartner explains, usually fly for up to one hour and as high as 500 metres, weighing less than 2 kg and costing under $5,000 US.
Then there are commercial drones, defined by Gartner as featuring heavier payloads, longer flight times and higher price tags combined with "redundant sensors and flight controllers to make them safer. They are more specialized to a function such as mapping, delivery or industrial inspection.”
Gartner expects commercial drone revenues to hit $3.6 billion this year, up from $2.8 billion last year. The question now is which business activities will drive that trend?
The business case
Drones offer businesses increased mobility and access. They fly into areas that are normally difficult, expensive or dangerous to get to. Hence those recent tests to deliver pizza and other goods.
When UPS tested residential delivery of packages by drone earlier this year, it noted that UAVs enable easier delivery to homes in rural or hard-to-access areas.
Here's how it works. A drone flies out of the top of a UPS truck to complete one delivery. Then the truck keeps driving along the main road to continue dropping off goods to other homes at the same time. This cuts down on fuel costs, time, labour and pollution.
Drones equipped with photographic or video cameras can inspect sites like roads, construction projects, rail lines, bridges, mines, pipelines, buildings and power lines to detect defects, assess damage and estimate repair requirements. This new method of inspection can have dramatic impacts on work efficiency. By using drones to assess cyclone damage to an office park last year, an Indian insurance company submitted a claim within 36 hours instead of the average one-week period.
In addition, improved connectivity and battery power mean today’s drones can stay in flight (and in contact with their operators or programmers) longer than before. Newer drones can be fully automated and pre-programmed to follow specific flight paths with no human intervention. Plus, they’re equipped with sensors to automatically avoid obstacles and collisions.
Moving forward, even more sophisticated sensors are adding in the other key business benefit: data.
Drones and data
The agriculture industry is one example seeing great benefits from drones and data.
Fredericton, N.B.’s Resson is taking farm tech to new heights. Using remote sensors, robotics and predictive analytics, the company’s drones fly over fields to capture crop data so farmers can accurately measure moisture and detect pests or diseases. This improves crop yields while reducing the use of labour, water, pesticide and fertilizer.
The ability to share sensor-based drone data in the cloud means managers can make quicker, more informed decisions while off-site. The improvement in speed and informed decision-making will be found in industries ranging from forestry and farming to engineering and construction.
Drones are getting cheaper and easier to use, like the Hubsan x4 pictured in the feature image. Dronethusiast recently named it the "Best Drone With Camera Under $100" based on its ease of use, ability to fly both indoors and outdoors in any conditions, and its size — the little drone can fit on the palm of your hand.
Despite their improved affordability and operation, your ability to harness drones for business depends on what you want to accomplish. For example, live streaming your company’s next event on Periscope is fairly simple by using a GoPro or other small drone-mounted camera. But using drones with advanced features and cameras can become more complicated, requiring more technical operation and precision for those dramatic aerial shots.
As PwC points out in a 2016 report, however, collecting and analyzing data with drones often requires specialized skills, sensors, imaging equipment and analytics software. Coupled with the fact that drones are subject to federal laws, using UAVs for many business purposes is more complicated than ordering a pizza. If that’s the case, you might want to subcontract your corporate drone duties to some professionals.
Up Next: Learn more about the latest tech trends in 5 Tech Predictions for 2017.
About the Author
Christine Wong is a journalist based in Toronto who has covered a wide range of startups and technology issues. A former staff writer with ITBusiness.ca, she has also worked as a reporter for the Canadian Economic Press and in broadcast roles at SliceTV and the CBC.Follow on Twitter More Content by Christine Wong