JOHANNESBURG - In the past few years, drones (also called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) have captured the imagination of tech lovers and the general public all over the world. The truth, however, is that we are only starting to uncover their real potential beyond expensive flying toys.
The past few years have been great years for the commercial drone business as drone technology was unlocked for more and more practical uses in aerial data and information management.
While drones have been around for a few years, it is Artificial Intelligence (AI), smart algorithms and programming that are opening up many new exciting possibilities. Innovative programming makes the visual information understandable and enables drone technology to cross the chasm into mainstream use.
Drones are, therefore, growing remarkably in certain industries such as agriculture, construction, insurance, mining, public safety, oil and gas, survey engineering, telecommunication, utilities and the military.
Innovative uses of drones include wildlife and atmospheric research, disaster relief and sports photography. Drones are the eyes and ears of scientists when surveying archaeological sites, when game rangers want to prevent the illegal killing of rhinos, when farmers want to access the crop damage, and when meteorologists are flying them inside cyclones to study storms.
Drone technology makes it easier to capture, mine and use visual data through enhanced computer models. A good example of the repeated use of drones to monitor vegetative health comes from Malagash, Nova Scotia, in Canada.
A 4G-enabled drone with a multi-spectral camera is used to produce diagnostic maps for crop uniformity optimisation, irrigation management, harvest planning, and plant health information. Fine winemaking requires grapes with very specific qualities and drones make the monitoring possible.
In the sphere of life-saving emergency medical care drones could make a real difference. In Sweden, Dr Claesson from the Karolinska Institutet is working on tests using 5G-enabled drones to deliver defibrillators.
Due to the remoteness of certain areas in Sweden, the 30-day survival rate for cardiac arrests outside of hospitals is only 11percent.
Some areas are so remote that it takes emergency responders too long to reach the person. Drones play a significant role in increasing survival rates since every minute without CPR and a defibrillator decreases survival rates by 10percent. Similarly drones are used to drop off emergency medicine, such as insulin, anti-venom or anti-allergy medicine.
A very novel way of using drones can be found in Eastern Europe and parts of Central Asia where it is used to fight corruption.
Civil organisations fighting corruption and promoting transparency use drones to collect video evidence of lavish properties and lifestyles of politicians, judges and other officials that are not possible on their government salaries.
For instance, the Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation used drones to discover the numerous mansions and vacation homes apparently belonging to President Vladimir Putin and his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev. The resulting videos have fuelled protests in Moscow and across Russia in 2018.
In Armenia activists released drone footage revealing a palatial property allegedly owned by Taron Margaryan, the mayor of the Armenian capital Yerevan. He resigned two weeks later. An investigative organisation used a drone to capture images of former Kyrgyzstan president Almazbek Atambayev’s palatial compound on the outskirts of Bishkek, impossible to build with his officially declared wealth of $111 000 (R1.55million) in 2015.
In the Ukraine Prosud alone has filmed at least 600 properties of corrupt officials across the entire country.
But the use of drones to fight corruption is not only used by civil organisations. Gauteng has been using drones since last year to monitor construction sites to discourage corruption in infrastructure projects.
Drone-led probes are much more powerful than traditional journalistic investigation. It is only when flying over properties that it is possible to see the real wealth. But some governments are becoming increasingly aware of the potential dangers of an eye in the sky.
In Moldova and several other countries officials are preparing very strict regulations for drone use. It is, therefore, not clear how much longer anti-corruption drones will be able to continue roaming the skies in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Over the past two years drones have been recognised as a critical life-saving tool by government agencies, first responders and victims during natural disasters. DJI, the world’s leader in civilian drones and aerial imaging technology, is working closely with the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) to use drones as an emergency response tool.
The drones are equipped with visual and thermal imaging cameras that provide real-time video and data transmission to incident commanders. The feedback from the drones assists them with hot-spot identification and aerial mapping to help manage wildfire response, as well as incident response for swift water rescues, hazardous material operations, and urban search and rescue missions.
The LAFD is one of more than 910 public safety organisations across the US that are deploying drones for life saving activities.
A growing number of organisations globally are using drones for asset inspection and infrastructure asset management. In addition to safer and simpler inspections where access is rather difficult, the collected data is particularly valuable when interpreted.
Airbus is testing drones in Singapore to deliver goods up to a maximum of about 1.5kg to ships anchored offshore. The biggest advantage of using drones is efficiency. The 2km journey takes 10 minutes and is done at a fraction of the usual cost. The plan is to eventually increase the length of the routes and the cargo carrying capability of the drone, thus giving shipping companies an alternative when transporting goods to offshore vessels.
Drones could also be valuable when dealing with delicate, time-sensitive samples as in North Carolina, where hospitals are using drones to transport the specimens of patients. Unlike courier cars, drones are not submitted to road traffic problems and can thus get the samples much quicker to the pathology lab. The drones can travel more than 20km with samples weighing up to 2.5kg.
In Ghana, drones are used to deliver medical supplies and blood for transfusions. It is especially useful in getting medicine markedly faster to remote areas than road-based vehicles.
Drones are also much more environmentally friendly since they use much less energy than trucks and thus have a smaller carbon footprint. One start-up company is hard at work creating cargo drones to carry significantly larger loads.
Tests are being done with prototype drones that are 10 metres long, carry 320kg and could travel as far as 4630km.
Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems are using specialised drones for the inspection of power-plant boilers and similar large-scale indoor structures. Locating weak spots in this high specification infrastructure could avert industrial and utility disasters and save many lives.
The new generation of these cloud-based drones are autonomous, do not need GPS, and can undertake beyond visual line-of-sight flights. If only we had some of these drones when Medupi and Kusile power stations have been constructed, we may have had a lot fewer problems with load shedding!
These examples are just a small sample of the commercial use of drones and the important role they will play in the future. Perhaps there is a drone in your future.
Professor Louis Fourie is the deputy vice-chancellor: knowledge & information technology - Cape Peninsula University of Technology.