We must support the development of better drone technology. Here’s why

A hydrogen-powered drone makes its first successful test flight for 70 minutes with a 5kg payload.

When you hear the word ‘drone’, what do you think of: the most promising technological development of the decade, or a nuisance object that’s taking to the skies and propelling itself towards a bad reputation?

Heavily publicised incidences of misuse at UK airports have left drones with an image problem, but this shouldn’t dissuade us from investing in, and improving, this technology. Quite the contrary: it should accelerate our efforts to create a legitimate, regulated and sophisticated market for responsible drone use.

Here are five reasons why we need drone technology to take off.

It can provide invaluable feed data for surveying, mapping and construction

Aerial data can be used for land surveys, building inspections, on-site activity monitoring and security.

Whether you’re planning a road network, or building a housing estate, you need to know the plot of land like the back of your hand. Enter aerial views, which enable surveyors and architects to map out an area quickly to develop accurate 2D or 3D maps of a project.

Previously done by manned aircraft or satellites, aerial surveying and mapping are cheaper and faster when using a drone. Site managers can even use drones at different project stages to monitor progress in real-time and provide better estimates to stakeholders.

“In the construction industry, drones provide easy access to large or difficult sites as well as complex or tall structures,” according to an article in Commercial Drone Professional. “They can gather aerial data, mapping information and images used for: land surveys, building inspections, visual material for clients and staff, on-site-activity monitoring, security surveillance and mapping data.”

Indeed, infrastructure development has been one of the earliest adopters of drone technology, with a 35.5% market share, according to PwC.

It could streamline farming for better crops and less waste

It’s not just construction that can benefit from the invaluable data captured by drones. The agriculture industry can also use this technology to monitor entire fields of crops for soil quality, irrigation and general crop health.

Precision agriculture using UAVs could reduce the need for pesticides and improve irrigation of crops.

“More and more farmers are using UAVs for precision agriculture,” says MarketResearch.com. “With the help of drones, agricultural activities such as crop management, crop counting, crop health monitoring, and spraying pesticides can be done more cost-effectively and more quickly as compared to conventional methods.”

According to a report by PwC, the agriculture industry is already harnessing the value of drones. “Certain drones combine normal and thermal cameras to deliver a level of insight into field crop health that is not obvious to the naked eye, including thermal imaging that can detect dry areas and ensure water is delivered where required,” it says. “Low flight costs also offer an opportunity to frequently overfly field crops and create a timelapse view that highlights any issues.”

The report estimates that more than 25,000 drones will be used across agriculture, mining, gas and electricity by 2030, with AI technology set to have a significant impact on drone capability. “The use of drones will be driven by AI routines that launch drones to collect crop information based on a particular trigger event, be it periodicity or a big data event such as an unseasonably wet or dry spell,” it says. “The drones will fly autonomously, and the data captured will then be analysed by AI.”

It’s advancing other areas of science, such as biological research and conservation

A drone’s superior vantage point makes any data collected up to 96% more accurate than ground-gathered data

Imagine being able to monitor the migratory patterns of an animal population without disturbing them; or discovering a new, elusive species in a previously remote and inaccessible location. Drones can do all this and more, making it a significant tool for conservation efforts around the world.

“Not only does a drone give you a bird’s-eye view of the landscape, but it also allows you to capture detailed, high-resolution images of objects on the ground,” said Lian Pin Koh, a drones ecologist working with Conservation Drone. “We believe that drones have tremendous potential, not only for combatting wildlife crime, but also for monitoring the health of these wildlife populations.” (Take a look at Lian Pin Koh’s TED talk to find out more about the Conservation Drone team’s work in Nepal.)

The superior vantage point of drones also improves the accuracy of their data, often by up to 96% when compared to data gathered on the ground, according to research by the University of Adelaide and the Australian Antarctic Division.

It could keep us safe…

According to Dr Stephen Prior, a reader in Unmanned Air Vehicles for the University of Southampton, the market for drones in security and surveillance is still in its infancy, but it’s growing. PwC estimates that the public and defence industries will account for more than 27,000 drones by 2030, with potential applications ranging from licence plate identification and traffic monitoring, to border control. What’s more, tracking drones are cheaper to hire or run than a helicopter, “not to mention more nimble and discrete,” according to IFSEC Global.

Drones are more nimble and discrete, making them perfect for tracking and surveillance.

Eventually, drones will be deployed to evacuate or move personnel, as Dr Stephen Prior explains: “The ultimate goal is to create a UAV that can carry people. It could be used to fly soldiers the last mile into combat or take an injured soldier out of combat and back to base. Or it could be used to resupply troops or make the last mile delivery of goods. It is an interesting time to be involved in the sector.”

…and even save lives

From gaining aerial views of disaster areas to assess damage, to finding trapped victims of earthquakes, drones have amazing potential as a form of emergency response following a natural disaster or terrorist attack.

According to the Drone Safe Register, half of the UK’s police forces are either using, or planning to use, drones, while two-thirds of the UK’s fire services use drones to assist them in emergency situations.

“It gives you the whole picture, so when you go to an incident with drones, we can actually do a 360 observation and stay in a safe place,” said Steve Richards, station manager for the Mid and West Wales Fire Service. “It’s putting the drone up instead of having to put the firefighters in there.”

Search and rescue operations can also be improved through drone use. According to a 2016 study conducted by drone manufacturer DJI and Donegal Mountain Search and Rescue, drones can locate a victim six times faster than a five-person rescue team.

What next for the industry?

Project Rachel is developing a hydrogen-powered drone capable of extended flight times, even with a payload.

A significant challenge for any UAV application — including the ones above — is the payload / flight duration balance. Professional operators usually need to carry sophisticated cameras, as well as other equipment that can typically weigh around 5 kg. Unfortunately, current propulsion systems, which are powered by lithium batteries, only allow for a maximum flight duration of around 12 minutes. Needless to say, this severely limits drone functionality.

At Productiv, we’re been working with UAV filming specialists BATCAM, alongside Intelligent Energy, with grant funding from Innovate UK, to develop a multi-rotor UAV powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. The project, which is due to complete later this year, recently celebrated a significant milestone, with the UAV achieving a continuous flight time of 70 minutes while carrying a 5kg payload. This has set a new benchmark for flight times in the commercial UAV industry and represents a significant leap forward in how we can apply drone technology.

Find out more about ‘Project Rachel’ here or watch the video below to see the hydrogen-powered UAV in action.