An Insight into Drone Technology – Pivotal Applications and Developments

Mar 17, 2022
12 min read

The last decade has witnessed a prolific rise in the deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones as they are popularly called. The drone industry is still nascent compared to many others; however, these products have been diligent in breaking conventional barriers and have emerged as a highly viable solution for 3D modelling, mapping, surveying, delivery, and more. Tasks that once looked seemingly unsafe and impossible now look rather feasible. As per AUVSI, the impact of commercial drones may hit USD 82 billion with a 100,000 job boost to the US economy by 2025.

Whether they are operated via a remote or through a smartphone app, drones can access highly remote and dangerous ones with hardly any manpower and very less time, costs, and energy, making them an indispensable device for governments and businesses worldwide. In a nutshell, drones provide the following benefits:

· They resolve security issues to a large extent.

· They help improve and fine-tune accuracy.

· They help increase work efficiency and productivity.

· They are inexpensive compared to conventional methods undertaken for the same task.

· They help reduce workload and save time.

Drone adoption is expected to increase substantially within the next few years as more and more businesses are realizing its scope and potential.

Key Technologies Drones deploy

A number of pivotal technologies are deployed in drones, although it would be imperative to state that UAV technology is evolving every day. This can be credited to innumerable use-cases that UAVs have, that are slated to only increase further in 2022 and beyond. A gist of some of the vital technologies used in drones is enlisted below:

#1 Wireless Communications

Wireless technology plays a major role in controlling UAVs and ensuring safe flying. Range extender technology for example, as the name suggests, is used to extend the range of communication between a monitoring device and the drones in an open area. Wireless communication can make transmission distances up to 700 meters, quite viable. A popular wireless technology used in drones is Wi-Fi in the frequency band of 2.4GHz to 5.47GHz, for control and sensor-like drone payloads.

#2 Global Navigation Satellite System

Most aerial drones deployed in cryospheric regions and at high latitudes, use GNSS to navigate and verify accurate positioning. Three key factors determine the signal availability of GNSS – the inclination angle of the satellite, the altitude of the orbit, and the ground-level view width of the signal transmitter attached to the satellite. Using GNSS, drones can effectively support research across the fields such as geomorphology, oceanography, climatology, geology, geophysics, and ecology.

#3 Photonics

Drones are often embedded with photonic sensing to provide air quality data to emergency services in real-time that are helpful in case of emergency evacuations after incidents such as volcanic eruptions, floods, wildfires, or chemical blazes. Using novel photonic sensors in drones helps them detect several toxic gases at once. They can also detect fine traces of airborne molecules, which can be detrimental to human health; this way, they can map out areas that may be too dangerous for humans to enter.

#4 RADAR/LiDar

Radar is deployed in droned to help measure the reflections of electromagnetic waves for object detection and location across numerous applications. In water-related applications, UAV systems use stage radars, ground-penetrating radars (GPR) to measure channel depth, and coherent, continuous-wave (CCW) Doppler (velocity) radars as well as the situation demands. Radar positioning helps to ensure accurate drone navigation and also displays the current drone position in relation to the controller.

#5 Gallium arsenide (GaAs) Solar Cells

Highly energy-efficient gallium arsenide (GaAs) solar cells are used in UAVs as a suitable power source. These cells are thin and flexible and can be easily fixed on drone surfaces. By replacing traditional silicon solar cells with GaAs solar cells, drones are able to fly for much longer periods with maximum power and energy efficiency. They are the best solution to maximize the flight time of drones and offer numerous advantages in terms of thinness, flexibility, and weather resistance.

Besides the aforementioned, drones use optoelectronic sensors, satellite communications, inertial navigation systems, micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS), actuators, connectors, collision avoidance technology, and so on. In the years to come, drones may be majorly controlled using 5G, AI, and similar technologies.

Top 8 pivotal applications of drones

#1 Agriculture

Agricultural operations today are quite different from those that took place over a decade back. The influx of advanced technology has eased farming to quite an extent, enabling growers to optimize some of their operations such as crop health maintenance, crop spraying, growth cycles, and field mapping. Using the right agricultural drone and spraying payloads for instance, can considerably reduce manual errors and distribute chemicals correctly and evenly, as opposed to too much or too little concentrated spray in one place, leading to crop damage.

Drones are also used to aid the growing process – they can map out a particular area and create new insights using remote sensing technology. Advanced agricultural drones use multispectral imaging to capture visible and invisible light sensors and create RBG and NDVI maps that help with crop monitoring.

#2 Shipping and Delivery

Unmanned systems are being used more and more across the maritime sector. Since a few years now, prominent drone companies have been working with retail firms and the like to ease shipping and delivery of goods. With digitization taking center-stage and establishments the world over working to take their wares online for everyone to access, faster shipping and delivery have become a priority, a feat eased with the adoption of delivery drones. Dublin-based Manna for instance, boasts of highly efficient autonomous drone delivery services.

One of the key reasons drones are increasingly being used for shipping products is the reduction in costs. Drone delivery costs much lesser; it is in fact, touted to cost 90% lesser than car services. Using UAVs for shipping goods also reduced traffic congestion, carbon emissions, and noise to a considerable extent, enabling a more sustainable and environment-friendly delivery process.

#3 Search & rescue and disaster management

Drones can and have considerably helped in bettering disaster management worldwide, as they amplify disaster risk reduction, response, relief, recovery, preparedness, and rehabilitation. Drone-led surveillance helps with change detection – they can alter their path in between the flight in case they come across an unusual occurrence, thereby reducing the time taken to spot a possible disaster.

Drones also help undertake on-the-spot action and analysis, reducing disaster response time. Through 3D mapping and aerial monitoring, drones scout the entire area, looking for potential exits, blind spots, bottlenecks, flare points, etc., helping emergency disaster teams take the right decision at the right time.

Drones have, since the last half a decade or so, proven to be adept at search-and-rescue operations. Ordinarily, the probability of finding survivors after disasters is highest within the first 72 hours of the event. To that end, it is essential that search operations be conducted as soon as possible – which is now rather easier with UAVs. Drones usually conduct high-resolution visual and thermal imaging to provide a clear picture of the survivors, even if they are in inaccessible terrains. This helps the on-ground team understand the severity of the situation and accordingly plan the rescue operation.

#4 Aerial photography and entertainment

Aerial photography has a different visual aesthetic about itself, making it highly well-demanded in the field of entertainment. Since a long time, aerial shots for movies, advertisements, or otherwise were taken using helicopters or parachutes equipped with cameras.

With the onset of UAV technology however, aerial photography has taken on a different role. Drones allow users to take photographs of stills that may not otherwise be possible for human photographers and videographers. Their ability to tolerate harsh environments and the fact that they enable a clear first-person view has made these devices extremely popular in aerial photography.

Of late, the integration of artificial intelligence in drones is catching on, since AI-enabled UAVs easily adapt to the environment and are able to perform many autonomous tasks. Some of these include taking a dronie (a drone-based selfie) or following a user and taking pictures while they walk around or drive. Drone photography is also used in surveillance activities to gather intelligent insights against enemies and for competitive intelligence by businesses.

#5 Geographic mapping

UAVs find a major use-case in land surveying, owing to the fact that they capture topographic data close to five times faster as compared to land-based methods. In addition, there is lesser manpower requirement as well, not to mention, the time saved on account of PPK geo-tagging that helps deliver survey results faster and at lesser costs.

Survey drones are also extensively used for geographic mapping owing to the fact that they generate high-resolution orthomosaics and precise 3D models of regions where outdated data may be available. This helps surveyors to produce high-accuracy cadastral maps quickly and easily, even for difficult terrains. They can also extract features from the images, such as fire hydrants, road markers, etc.

Geographic maps produced from drones help simplify topographic surveys for land management and planning. They also help accelerate surveys for construction of roads, bridges, utilities, and buildings, site scouting, and allotment planning. Once this data is generated, it can be converted to a 3D model using suitable software such as BIM and CAD.

#6 Wildlife monitoring

In the wildlife, UAVs are mostly used to protect animals from harm, in addition to studying their behavior and keeping count. They are highly accurate and can monitor wildlife far better than humans. Drones help capture animal images very closely, giving researchers an edge over conventional photography.

Drones have helped revolutionize animal tracking using innovative radio telemetry technology, contributing to improved wildlife conservation. Advanced telemetry technology helps track close to 40 radio-tagged animals simultaneously, even across difficult terrains such as wetlands, swamps, and mountains.

One of the most crucial use-cases of drones in this case is anti-poaching. UAVs help conduct surveillance visits on poachers, analyze the data they gather in real-time, and help catch criminals in the act. They also help avoid the frequent fatalities that occur when manned aircrafts are used in wildlife monitoring.

#7 Military

Drones have been used in the military for the longest time ever; indeed, it has been one of the first use-cases of UAVs. Historically, drones had been used by militaries worldwide since the mid-1800s, for air strikes, training, surveillance, bomb detection, and hostage negotiation. These remotely-controlled aircraft enable the military to strike targets overseas without having to risk the lives of their pilots. It also reduced the requirement of military personnel in high-risk missions. As more drones come to be used for air strikes and tactical missions, it may lead to a reduced number of civilian casualties.

Military drones also save up in costs as they are inexpensive to produce as compared to planes. They also boast of lesser maintenance costs. Drones can be used to monitor terrorist organizations and hinder any life-threatening plans or operations. They can also be used to swiftly respond to terrorist attacks or operate from a very far-off distance, as any of their functions are automated.

#8 Weather forecasting

Meteorological drones have been gaining considerable popularity since the last few years, given their capability in accurately predicting storm formations and other weather-related concerns. These drones are fitted with efficient sensors that measure humidity, pressure, and temperature as they fly through various altitudes.

In case of hurricane forecasting and the like, drones are fitted with sensors called Dropsondes, designed with small parachutes that collect data as they fall, making it easier to analyze the vertical profile of a storm. They are then able to transmit the data to the weather stations on the ground, in real-time, enabling scientists not only to predict the wind temperature, speed, and direction.

Unlike conventional weather balloons and weather stations, meteorological drones are designed to fly through the entire vertical layer of the atmosphere’s boundary layer to gather crucial data. Several research programs are underway to revolutionize weather forecasting and meteorological science.

Major developments in the Drone Technology Industry

· DJI (Da-Jiang Innovation), one of the top shots in the drone industry, last year in December, launched its latest agriculture drone in its crop protection series, dubbed the DJI AGRAS T20.

As per reports, T20 boasts of a modular design that makes it accessible for farmers wanting to apply automated spray technology and digital insights into their operations. It can carry an astounding payload of 20kg and the nozzle layouts have been optimized to depict a 20% improvement on the uniformity of spray droplets. It has a total of eight nozzles and high-volume pumps that have the ability to spray at a rate of up to six l/min.

DJI claims that the DJI AGRAS T20 model is more portable than other agro-based drones, as it folds and unfolds in seconds. In addition, the spray tank and battery are both swappable, thereby increasing workflow and lowering downtime.

· Coles recently announced it is collaborating with drone technology company Wing, to launch a pilot program. Apparently, the program aims to deliver groceries to customers’ doorsteps via drones. Coles is the first significant supermarket in Australia to offer this service. As for the customers, Wing users in Canberra will be given the first priority to try out Coles’ pilot program, through the Wing app.

· UPS Flight Forward, UPS’s drone subsidiary, last year in August, made it to the headlines for having announced that it plans to complete the first drone delivery of COVID-19 vaccines in North Carolina. UPS’s drones were facilitating ground delivery for the Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist hospital, from where they carried vaccines to one of the health system's family medicine practices.

· Recently in February 2022, The Airborne Public Safety Association (APSA), a non-profit organization supporting public safety aviation, signed an agreement of cooperation with the Airborne International Response Team (AIRT), a non-profit organization that supports drone usage for public safety and disaster response. The agreement aims to support the implementation of the NIST (National Institute for Standards and Technology) Test Methods for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) and better remote pilot proficiency surrounding public safety drone operations.

· A new drone payload called Echo SAR has recently forayed in the market. Manufactured by Teledyne FLIR Defense and designed by Canadian company Robotics Centre, the Echo SAR drone payload is embedded with the ARTEMIS mobile phone detection system and is capable of turning any cellular handset into a location beacon, even in the absence of a viable cellular network. This would potentially help drone operators to quickly map and interact with mobile phone handsets in disaster situations, enhancing the ability to find victims and save lives.

· Hydrex Environmental, a drone exploration company based out of Nacogdoches, Texas, has been working to combat the issues faced by drone photographers when trying to capture images and data across dense forests. The company has turned to LiDAR technology, through which they can leverage laser pulses that provide images from underneath vegetation canopy. Large drones capable of carrying extra weight can enable LiDAR to minutely scan through the trees with accurate precision.

· FIXAR, the Europe-based commercial drone developer, recently announced that it plans to penetrate the Indian unmanned aerial vehicle market by collaborating with Paras Aerospace, an arm of Paras Defence. Together, the company will launch FIXAR007, its flagship fixed wing drone in the country, which will be used majorly for video surveillance and aerial photography across sectors such as the security and the government.

· Recently, public health authorities in Zanzibar, Tanzania, in collaboration with some of UK’s universities, deployed drones to map mosquito breeding sites in malaria hotspots. In a first, drone imagery has been used to create precise maps of potential breeding sites. Reportedly, a single drone will be able to map a 30-hectare field in merely 20 minutes, after which the imagery is processed and analyzed to locate and map potential breeding sites. The approach has proven to be brilliant, and has been adopted in national malaria campaigns in other African regions as well.

· In February 2022, during the 1st Anniversary of the Release of Geospatial Data, Dr. Jitendra Singh, Union Minister of State (Independent Charge) Science & Technology, announced that under the SVAMITVA scheme, over 6 lakh Indian villages will be geographically mapped for surveys. Simultaneously, pan-India 3D Maps will be made for 100 Indian cities, which will be a revolutionary change in the upliftment of the rural economy.

· A recently conducted study by the researchers from University of Aberdeen along with the Duke University in the USA and their MaRRS (Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Laboratory) seeks to establish if female bottlenose dolphins are pregnant, using drones. With the help of UAVs, the body width of the cetaceans can be measures through the aerial images, after which scientists can establish which females in the group are pregnant.

· A while ago, the Warren County Community College and the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) collaborated to deploy drones in order to identify Burmese pythons in the wild. They have been testing varied sensors to determine which of them is best suited to locate these pythons that are adept at hiding under water or amid thick canopies.

· Recently, the Chinese and Saudi industries have come together to build military drones in the kingdom.

As per reports, China Electronics Technology Group Corp. and Advanced Communications and Electronics Systems Co. signed an agreement at the World Defense Show in Riyadh, to create a JV called Aerial Solutions. This company will help manufacture different types of UAV systems.

· A very recent instance of the deployment of drones in the military was exemplified when Ukraine received a shipment of Turkish-made Bakar Bayraktar TB2 armed drones amid the war. Ukraine’s defense minister announced that new drones have arrived in the country and are on combat duty.

· The IMD (India Meteorological Department) is on its way toward a pilot project to be launched 2023 for using drones for weather forecasting across India. The ministry plans to use highly efficient UAV observation technology to strengthen localized weather forecasting.

· Last year in August, Swiss company Meteomatics announced that it is working with Thales to decide if they can use drones to capture meteorological data and obtain quicker, precise, and cheaper weather forecasts. Through this, the company hoped to replace the conventional models of weather forecasting such as balloons and satellites. In fact, Meteomatics has already worked with Thales on the production of two drones called the Meteodrone MM-641 and MM-670. Although they both have varied characteristics, they can work together to generate a highly accurate weather forecast for their flying area.

The Future of Drone Technology

It comes as no surprise that drones are here to stay; as per reports, consumers may spend more than USD 17 billion on drones in the next few years. The technological evolution of drones is immense, and despite the regulatory hurdles, experts claim that the scope of UAVs is only set to surge. With more and more advanced technologies being integrated in drone production, they are bound to become safer and more reliable in the future.

A majority of establishments are vying to be a part of the drone technology sector and have been undertaking suitable initiatives in this regard. Recently, he Drone Federation of India (DFI) signed an MoU (memorandum of understanding) with a Japanese test field to enhance the Indian drone industry and accelerate drone technology as a whole.