Wireless Technologies

Why drones are not just for Christmas

Drones carrying drugs and mobile phones over prison walls have been a surprising catalyst for entrepreneurial activity recently, as governments and prison organisations fight to keep a lid on the problem. While the Lenzburg prison in Switzerland is, according to a statement, spending 200,000 francs installing an anti-drone alarm system on its roof using a combination of radar and video, others, such as Australian firm Droneshield are taking a more direct approach.

The Dronegun, a rifle shaped device, can be used to jam the drone signal, bringing it back to earth or sending it back to its starting point: a measure which of course would help track its pilot. It’s an ingenious invention and is indicative of the new approach everyone from entrepreneurs to prison officials are taking to tackle the issue.

According to Matt Williams, managing director of Aerial Motion Pictures (AMP), it’s just one of many solutions across the globe. AMP is working with the UK’s HM Prison Service to train staff in the art of drone flying, using thermal imaging to detect accomplices operating the drones outside prison walls.

In the fledgling drone industry, which actually likes to refer to itself with the catch-all phrase of ‘unmanned aerial vehicle’ (UAV), new business ideas and opportunities are emerging. It’s what has prompted BI Intelligence to issue a report claiming that growth in enterprise use of drones will “outpace the consumer sector in both shipments and revenues as regulations open.” In May this year PwC estimated that the potential global market for commercial drone applications is valued at $127bn. The drone business is clearly bullish about its prospects.


Open skies

Dr Kevin Curran, Senior Member of the IEEE and senior lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Ulster, agrees. He believes “it will not be uncommon in five years to see drones delivering packages”, but he adds that the scope is much wider, covering first-response units for medical emergencies, pharmacy deliveries and complex building inspection.

It is this latter infrastructure sector that is, excuse the pun, taking off rapidly. Williams at AMP says that he is starting to see considerable growth in the number of corporates and individuals training in 3D modelling for building and land surveying and inspection, for example. 

“There’s definitely been a shift towards this sort of training,” says Williams, “it’s not just about flying drones anymore. People are seeing an opportunity.”

The PwC report adds agriculture, transport and security to infrastructure as the top business sectors for drones and certainly it is easy to see how these sectors can flourish. However, it’s not all plain flying. Privacy and safety concerns are high on the list of issues facing the industry while not all commercial drones are viable – this is a fragmented market trying to find its feet.



“There are technical limitations mainly with regards to reliability and flight time,” adds Dr Curran. “We have seen new entrants into the market such as GoPro which had to pull its Karma drone from the market due to reliability issues. This highlights the difficulties in creating a commercial drone.”

While data protection rules apply to drone cameras, as they would to any device with a camera, there are still concerns around flight rules and policing the use of drones. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US, drone sales are expected to grow from 2.5 million in 2016 to seven million in 2020 – that’s a lot of drones to monitor and a potential headache in waiting for air traffic control.

“The overall rules for drone use in the UK have been in existence for some time and have varying requirements based on the size of drone and use,” says Jonathan Nicholson, assistant director of communications at the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). “The Dronecode sets out these rules for small drones but there are also already requirements in place for very large commercial drones.”

The CAA’s Dronecode  is quite simply a set of guidelines and rules which of course means there is still room for legal development. The CAA’s own research revealed that Just 13 per cent of the public thought it very likely that someone violating the Dronecode would be penalised, so there is still some work to do in giving people confidence that drones will be effectively policed.

This of course will not stop the march of the drone into commercial activity. While safety is naturally a huge concern, technology rather than regulation could in fact provide the solution.

“Modern uncrewed aerial systems can be preprogramed to avoid no-flyover zones, both uploaded by the public and those set by airports and military,” adds Dr Curran. “Modern drones also are beginning to ship with anti-collision systems on board and these will make a big difference for future safety.”

Air traffic control technology provider NATS has also come up with a mobile app to help drone users keep within the regulations and guidelines. Called Drone Assist, the app presents pilots with an interactive map of areas of airspace used by commercial aircraft, helping to reduce risk.

It’s a solution but perhaps not a universal one. As commercial drone use grows so pressure will mount on the regulators, as well as the drone makers to improve safety, drone reliability and accuracy. It will also demand increased certified training.


Cutting corners

Attitudes to certified training, as you can imagine vary. Given the cost it is understandable that some people may try to circumvent certification. Williams at AMP is well aware that a number of users, including new commercial ventures are avoiding courses, cutting corners and potentially putting people and equipment at risk.

It’s a concern, given that the skies could slowly fill with drones in the next few years. While the authorities rush to register drones and play catch-up on the market, the hope is that they won’t stifle it. The horse has already bolted on this one and as we know getting the mix of regulation, rules and commercial development right is never an easy path to navigate retrospectively.

“Ultimately, the rules governing use of drones are still evolving,” says Dr Curran. “In the UK, the House of Lords EU Committee posits that all commercial drone operators should register their drones on an online database or app in the near future, and that in the longer term this should encompass leisure users as well. A key recommendation is that drone flights must be traceable, effectively through an online database, which the public could access via an app.”

It’s an interesting idea but as more solutions appear it’s possible to see more problems. The nature of the drone beast is that this may always be the case and new users adopt drones and find new ways to use them. The scope is surprisingly extensive and almost unthinkable just three years ago when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos hinted at a drone delivery service. Back then social media was awash with claims of PR stunt. Now we are on the cusp of a commercial drone revolution.


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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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