• Sai Ruthvik

Drones: Past, Present, and Future

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

Rwanda became the first country in the world to use drones for the transportation of blood across its harsh terrain for transfusion needs. Drones were used by authorities in Australia to detect heat signals from koalas that survived devastating bushfires. There are numerous instances like these that have established the fact that drones are among the biggest disruptors of the 21st century, and there are hardly any signs of them going away.

A drone may be classified broadly into two categories:

  • Autonomous UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle)

  • RPV (Remotely Piloted Vehicle)

An autonomous UAV is designed and employed for a specific or repetitive task, such as mapping, surveying, or crop spraying. Modern UAVs are also programmed for obstacle avoidance so they can perform reliable operations like deliveries.

Unlike UAVs, RPVs are specially designed for human control and general use. Their flight, speed, and directions can be controlled remotely by humans. They are employed in tasks that require unusual control, which cannot be generalized e.g., photography.

Use Cases of Drones

Companies around the globe have been incorporating drones into every possible application. From photography to coffee delivery, drones have proved themselves beneficial in all kinds of scenarios.

With the technology that makes drones lift-off from the palms of the hands, the uses are endless. When a citizen on Juist, a remote German island, wanted a package of medicines it was made possible by drone delivery. The incident was celebrated, not because a drone delivered it, but because the remote island now felt close and connected to the mainland. Deliveries aside, there are many other applications of drones, such as:

Future Use Cases of Drones

In the future, drones are going to be used in various ways. These will include using them for day to day activities and tasks. Amazon and Google are already scaling up to make unmanned parcel delivery possible, while Tacocopter is looking to deliver tacos using the same technology.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see drones being used in disaster relief operations in the future. Drones are expected to save B.P. $6 million a year by maintaining the road infrastructure at America’s most significant oil fields, which need constant surveillance of the roads that carry petroleum equipment. In the future, drones would serve as an important tool for the oil companies to locate places to drill and further help in the mapping of oil fields.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has already seen the use of drones for sanitization, and it isn’t stopping here. Drones are going to be used for much more in the future, such as news reporting, land mapping, topology surveying, wildlife monitoring, and more.

Market Analysis of Drones

The drone market is proliferating and has an estimated worth of $19.3 Billion as of 2019 and is expected to reach $45.8 billion by the end of 2025 at a CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) of 15.5%. The registered number of drones in the U.S. alone stood at 1,563,263, and the number of pilots certified to man the drones stood at 171,744, giving ‘wings’ to the prediction. In June 2020, Honeywell Inc. invested in a new unmanned system business, as they were hoping to grab a major share of the market by creating avionics and autonomous flight control systems. Developments like this put a stamp of approval on the bright future of the drone. For drones to grab the market, it is important to analyze what to invest, where to invest and how much to invest.

Top Players in the Drone Landscape

Leading Startups in Drone Industry

Precision Hawk, an early American starter in the drone landscape, commands the largest war chest with funding totaling upwards of $136 million, making up almost 39% of the market. The company was the first to be granted an exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the year 2016, which enabled it to commercially fly drones beyond the line of sight of the operator. Apart from being a drone manufacturer and a pioneer in agricultural mapping, the company has now ventured into new verticals like construction, insurance, and energy. The company plans to use analytics and geospatial knowledge to set a new standard in drone remote sensing.

Skydio, a company formed by MIT graduates, takes the third spot with $70 million in funding and a market share of almost 20%. The company plans to challenge the superiority of the Chinese consumer drone pioneer, DJI. The high-end drone market has been clutched tightly by DJI, but Skydio, with its R1 Drone, tried to disrupt the space. Skydio recently announced the Skydio 2 drone, which is touted to be a notch higher than DJI’s technology. The company aims to make drone flying as easy as operating a cell phone’s camera.

Patent Landscape

Fields vs. No. of Patents

Analysis of the Number of Companies in Significant Fields

Countries with the Maximum Number of Patents

ImageKeeper LLC has filed a patent for a removal payload sensor system for a UAV, approximately at the same time as writing this informative piece. The patent is for a system that is intended to help the UAV fly within the airspace of the property and sensor/capture measurements of the same area. One can easily recognize the constant research and ongoing efforts in order to seize a part of this lucrative market that has patents being filed every minute.

Technology with no Challenges is just a Myth

Although the drone industry is growing at a constant rate, there are still several factors that are hampering its growth.

Drone Policy

As the advancements in drone culture increase, there is a need to secure and safeguard air vehicle rights and control. The hindrance of the inventions use is likely due to the fact that:

  • 36% of total countries in the world, do not have any drone laws/policies on paper.

  • 8% of all countries have a complete ban on drones.

  • Drone legislature now exists in slightly more than 40% of total countries.

Drone Ban

The most important issue surrounding drone-related legislation is security. Drones may be used for unauthorized surveillance, planned crimes, and rivalries. One can use a drone to survey a bank and analyze the building’s blueprint to plan theft. However, banning flights over individual buildings will not help much as it causes undesired air traffic.

  • Many countries are still not sure about what to do with drones, so they just banned them from controlling the information.

  • The control and formulation of drone policy affect the advancements in this technology. The countries where drone policies are flexible and adaptable have shown to advance greatly with drone use e.g., there has been a coffee delivery system that employs drones that were approved and is operational by the alphabet (Google Wing) in Australia.

Formulations and Rules

As of today, there are no real repercussions or action plans in case of extreme incidents involving drones such as accidents causing damage to vehicles or public/private property.

National Security Issues

The question of security is also important to consider as many terrorist-related organizations have already started to operate with drones. With these national-level security issues, it is imperative to have strong policies and limitations regarding drone use, such as providing drone licenses only after detailed investigations.

Air Traffic Management

Air traffic management is yet another issue that will continue to grow and is virtually uncontrollable as every organization will be using their own drones, which will create congestion in air routes. Consequences to this overcrowding may include bird accidents as birds may encounter injuries due to collisions with drone propellers.

Electronic Traffic Management

We are in a world of congested network traffics and with the rise of autonomous vehicles this issue increases, making it difficult to manage airwaves which could affect the health of humans and wildlife.

Where there is a problem, there is an opportunity to LEAD

  • Theft: While traveling in air, autonomous vehicles bear the risk of theft, which can be viewed as an opportunity rather than a problem. We already have GPS connected and location-enabled UAV’s however, the risk of theft is still there as one can remove or deactivate the transmitter-receiver system after getting their hands on an UAV. Given the large investments in UAVs, companies must be protected from such incidents.

  • Weather Stability: Another issue to be solved is the need to increase the weather stability of the drone. This is not only an immediate issue as it affects the current flight of drones but it will also affect the life cycle of drones, as low weather protection increases maintenance issues.

  • Birds Hindrance Damage: Although obstacle avoidance is a known method for decreasing bird-related damage, the problem is not yet solved as birds may unknowingly hit the propellers. With increased air traffic, there could be a high number of bird deaths if something is not done to equip drones with technology to avoid birds.

  • Fixed Wings vs. Flapping Wings: The primary difference between fixed wings and flapping wings is the fixed-wing craft gets its lift from a fixed airfoil surface while the latter gets lift from rotating airfoils called rotor blades. Although the decision to have flaps or not may depend on the application, there is no answer to whether fixed wing or flapping wings is the better flying system.

  • Drone Insurance: As companies spend millions of dollars to design their diamonds in the sky, it is of much concern to avoid loss if an accident occurs. This leads to the need for services such as drone insurance. Many companies started formulating their laws and policies to add insurance to your expensive tech piece. However, for many companies, it has yet to be decided on what services are to be provided under these insurances and what criteria you have to meet.

Future of Drones

While COVID-19 has slowed down the world economy, with some sectors experiencing a back-breaking ‘pain’, the outlook for drone technology does not seem so gloomy. With patents being obtained by a range of companies involved in the manufacturing of drones, the drone market only seems to grow. As artificial intelligence technology expands, drone technology seems to expand with it, which we can see from the massive number of drone startups and investments. Although there are many obstacles in the way of drones taking over the world, these can be easily tackled with a useful framework of rules and regulations. The future will provide drone technology with an array of opportunities for it to grow.


Sai Ruthvik

Senior Associate at Lumenci

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