Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) run the gamut from personal entertainment to military deployment, with a few uses sandwiched in between. Many people connect the term with covert operations and weapons delivery, but drones have made their way into the retail and agricultural spaces, drop-shipping small packages and enhancing crop yield. The defense industry projects to outpace all other market applications in frontier technologies that include space, virtual reality, and drones. In the first quarter of 2016, 72 startups received more than $1.2 billion in financing, a 44% increase over the last three months of 2015.
It should come as no surprise that the big technology players have jumped into the UAV pool along with the newly minted entrants. Amazon, looking at ways to cut operational costs, already offers a one-hour delivery service for customers within certain metropolitan areas and the use of drones could shrink that window to 30 minutes or less. Gliding through unobstructed air space and utilizing sensors, microprocessors, and tiny GPS systems, these autonomous vehicles can subsequently place small parcels on a customer’s porch or balcony.
Farmers can expect to benefit as UAV technology becomes less expensive and more pervasive. Aerial photography lends a view of crops that could once be achieved only by hiring piloted aircraft that costs about $1,000 per hour. With drones that can hover anywhere from a few feet to about 400 feet above a planting, farmers can spot problems with crops before damage is irreversible. The UAVs capable of relaying that imagery can be purchased for less than $1,000.
Drones have also made their way into the media fray. At large sporting or concert venues, units propelled by rotor blades, like miniature helicopters, provide viewing angles that can’t be duplicated by cameras strung along cables or operated by humans. In June of 2017, drones invaded the Champions Trophy cricket matchups, analyzing the nuances of each field’s grass and topography.
As the UAV market booms, job opportunities likewise grow for technologists who seek to latch on with the usual suspects or some other companies that fly under the radar.
Ever the frontrunner, Jeff Bezos’ e-commerce giant ranks high among companies that plan to deploy drones in daily operations. With Amazon’s principal business predicated on the timely delivery of consumer goods, drones fit naturally within the retail seller’s business model. The company has already begun to nail down some intellectual property protections. In May 2017, Amazon secured a patent on a delivery method that parachutes a package from a hovering drone into a recipient’s yard or driveway. In the United Kingdom, testing has begun on the winged service known as Prime Air. But, Amazon will have to wait for regulatory approval before its U.S. customers will receive small parcels from the sky.
Santa Clara, CA
Maybe not the sexiest player in the drone market, Ambarella nonetheless develops video technology that allows for the design of lighter and more nimble flying machines. The company’s H22 chip for drone cameras eliminates the need for gimbals or weighty pivoting mounts needed for image stabilization. At the January 2017 Consumer Electronics show, Ambarella also unveiled a chip that facilitates filming in 8K resolution, which is about 16 times clearer than current high-definition outputs. The image processing system on chips supplier sold more than 2 million units in 2016 to drone manufacturers such as DJI and Autel.
Simi Valley, CA
In 2000, the U.S. Department of Defense spent about $284 million on UAV applications. In 2016, that number grew tenfold with expenditures reaching $3 billion. Founded in 1971, the biggest supplier to the military complex continues to be AeroVironment, a Simi Valley, California-based company whose customers also include law enforcement and first responders. Weighing 4.2 lbs. with a 4.5-foot wingspan, the company’s Raven unmanned aircraft system can be launched remotely or by hand to perform reconnaissance missions or low-altitude surveillance operations. Along with the United States, AeroVironment counts Italy, Australia, and the Netherlands as customers that deploy the portable, back-packable system.
Falls Church, VA
There are UAVs used by hobbyists that sell for a hundred bucks. And there are unmanned helicopter systems such as Northrop Grumman’s Fire Scout MQ-8C, ten of which will be delivered to the Pentagon by August 2019 with an aggregate $293 million flyaway cost. The autonomous vehicle travels at a cruising speed of 161 mph, 35 mph faster than its predecessor and can be launched from any aviation-capable ship or prepared and unprepared sites. Its purpose in the field involves intelligence gathering and locating, tracking and designating targets for naval weapons strikes.
Construction ventures and structural inspections have been given a boost by drones whose software can analyze sites in 3D and speedily transmit those images from the sky to project engineers and architects. CEO Chris Anderson’s company, 3D Robotics, has raised $53 million in capital to develop its Site Scan product. The company, in a recent partnership with Sony, integrates a high-resolution camera into its UAVs to capture more granular specifics from physical components. 3D also projects to be a player in the agricultural market for drones, using thermal imagery to aid growers in crop management techniques.
What Does the Future Look Like?
Along with the household tech names, delivery services such as United Parcel Service continue to make big bets on the future of drones. As of June 2017, UAVs in the United States can only be flown within the view of the remote operator. That law may soon change as the Trump administration pursues its initiative to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure. Part of the deal involves privatizing the Federal Aviation Administration and unfolding a plan to let drones and manned aircraft safely share the skies. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao envisions giving states and localities more autonomy over air traffic control, a move that could pay quick dividends to the UAV industry.
Should these changes come to fruition, the FAA forecasts a significant sales increase in autonomous commercial machines and those piloted by hobbyists. In total, drone sales are projected to rise from 2.5 million units in 2016 to 7 million through 2020, an obvious boon to manufacturers such as DJI and Yuneec. See this drone market map by CBinsights which shows how dense the market really is.
Drone software designers who offer ease of use and accessibility across mobile devices also stand to capitalize on deregulation. E-commerce giants can expect to supplant some manned delivery vans with UAVs. Deutsche Bank analysts estimate that Amazon has already slashed shipping costs per box by about 20% between 2010 and 2015, and those savings can only grow as the last leg of a package’s journey, from warehouse to a customer’s door, is completed by drone.
The Bottom Line
A variety of established tech companies and startups alike continue to pour money into unmanned aircraft, seeking to increase operational efficiencies, reduce costs and foster growth. The boom in UAV usage across personal, business, and military applications presents ample opportunities for programmers and coders. While the bulk of the industry spend does come from defense contractors, consumer-oriented and B2B segments in the United States will be throwing more hats in the ring as the regulatory environment loosens up.
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