Whether they’re operating as flying measuring stations, relaying information in real time to rescue services or being used as a smart transport solution to cover the last mile in logistics chains – drones are now widespread and used in a whole host of different applications. Innovative technologies and a new regulatory framework will be key to their future large-scale deployment for commercial purposes.
Drones – and the distinct whirring noise from their small propellers – are becoming an increasingly familiar feature of our skies today. These small devices are becoming widespread and conquering more and more applications. Although the war in Ukraine has unfortunately put their military use in the spotlight, drones can now also be found in a wide range of professional sectors, where they make life easier for people and provide valuable assistance in many different scenarios.
Drones have become an established tool for agriculture and forestry work, in the energy and construction sector, for meteorology tasks, when surveying the Earth’s surface and even in the field of archaeology. With their special cameras, drones are able to take daylight shots or thermal images to identify cold bridges in buildings, for example. They rise to the air equipped with measuring devices to monitor the outside temperature, air pressure or humidity, and come equipped with sensors, lasers, infra-red scanners and radar. Their birds-eye view comes into its own for maintenance services and when determining whether infrastructure needs to be modernised.
430,700 drones in Germany (2021), 10 percent commercial use, 90 percent private use
385,500 drones were used in a private capacity in 2020. In 2019 it was still 455,000
45,200 drones were used commercially in 2020.In 2019 it was only 19,000
Source: Drone Industry Insights
Drones are also increasingly being used as a reliable delivery method. “The willingness of many countries to relax drone-related restrictions or quickly grant waivers for their use has resulted in increased and accelerated awareness about the benefits that drones can offer in delivering a wide range of medicines and goods, especially in areas where infrastructure is lacking,” says Michael Blades, VP Research, Aerospace & Defense Practice, Frost & Sullivan. The consulting company expects the market for unmanned aircraft to be worth 22.28 billion US dollars by 2025.
There are now numerous examples of drones being used for logistics purposes. Wing, a subsidiary of Alphabet that specialises in drone deliveries, reported more than 140,000 deliveries to customers in 2021, an increase of 600 percent compared with 2020. Working in collaboration with Swiss Post, drone systems developer Matternet has been sending its drones out across the skies of Swiss cities for more than four years now, outside the pilot’s line of sight. In November 2021, Walmart joined forces with drone delivery company Zipline to launch an on-demand delivery service for health and consumer goods near its Arkansas headquarters. Manna, an autonomous drone delivery service for coffee and food in Ireland, states it has already made 65,000 deliveries and is planning to expand its service to Europe.
“Superhighways” for drones
A particular challenge restricting the use of drones today is that they are currently not allowed to be flown without a human pilot, except in rare cases where there is a flight ban for other aircraft. One solution is to set up fixed corridors with sensors on the ground monitoring the airspace above. These sensors can be more powerful than the systems installed on drones as they are not subject to any weight or energy consumption restrictions. Drones using the corridor simply connect to the sensor network, which then guides them to their destination and ensures they avoid any potential obstacles in the air.
The UK government recently announced that it had given the green light to drone corridors like this, with initiatives like the “Skyway” project, which aims to link up the airspace above Reading, Oxford, Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Coventry and Rugby. It is set to be realised over the next two years and, at some 265 kilometres long, would be the world’s biggest and longest network of “drone superhighways”. A mobile communications system would connect the drones to a control system to make them more aware of their surroundings and give them tactical instructions to avoid collisions. “Cellular connectivity, and a secure, resilient 4G and 5G mobile network, will continue to enable the rapid growth of the drone market,” comments Dave Pankhurst, Director of Drones at BT, a project partner.
Part and parcel of our airspace
To promote the use of drones, the European Union will in future set up a dedicated transport system, called U-Space, by means of an official EU regulation. U-Space areas enable drones to be safely integrated into the airspace above our heads, including sharing it with manned aircraft. This opens the door to the use of drones as a regular means of transport for things like logistics, agriculture, supplying hard-to-reach areas or transporting vital medical equipment. To investigate how U-Space areas can form part of real-life operations, the U-Space Sandbox test facility was set up jointly by the two German companies Droniq and Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS) at the Port of Hamburg. As part of this project, Droniq supplied a traffic management system for drones called the UAS Traffic Management System (UTM). It provides a combined picture of the manned and unmanned aircraft flying in the skies and offers other features for operating drones safely and efficiently beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS). The system consists of a system for the ground sensors and a transponder for locating the aircraft, known as the Hook-On-Device.
“With the launch of U-Spaces, the drone market will soon open a new and exciting chapter,” says Droniq CEO Jan-Eric Putze. Arndt Schoenemann, Chairman of the Executive Board at DFS, adds: “It is important to put the first U-Spaces into action to advance the safe integration of drones into airspace. Unmanned aviation is an important part of future air traffic, which will in certain fields become increasingly autonomous in its operations.”